March 10, 2022 - by Justin Shaw
How a “Faculty Audit” can help Universities more strategically engage their faculty members
by Justin Shaw, Chief Higher Education Consultant, Communications Management
With an estimated 1.5-million faculty in the US and a near 50,000 growth in UK-based academics in the last decade (to 225,000), universities and colleges have a whole range of interests and expertise on offer. In fact, despite rumours to the contrary, academia is a large and growing global ‘industry’.
If you’re responsible for external relations, communications, marketing, civic engagement, knowledge exchange – or any other aspect of external engagement or “connectedness” in a university or college – then the ability to choose which faculty experts you selectively promote and publicise can be a very tough assignment. I’ve had first-hand experience with this. I was once in that very position – trying to keep up with the opportunities and the expectations afforded by 800 academics at just the one mid-sized UK institution where I worked.
With the benefit of that firsthand experience and having since worked with more than 100 higher education institutions in the UK, Europe and North America, here are a few observations and also a few tips on how to organize your expertise:
Approach #1 – The Focus on Expertise Clusters
An approach taken by some universities nowadays is to promote their expertise as a group of “grand challenges” or “beacons of excellence” – drawing together as many areas of research expertise under (usually) three or four headings. While identifying “token clusters” of expertise for focus and prioritisation may seem logical, this approach doesn’t really work. It may help with internal politics but it fails to generate enough precision to be relevant to various communities such as the media and industry.
Approach #2 – Selectively Promoting Key Experts
An approach taken by some universities nowadays is to promote their expertise as a group of “grand challenges” or “beacons of excellence” – drawing together as many areas of research expertise under (usually) three or four One trap that universities can also fall into is to focus on a small group of academics who appear to be more suitable to promote. The reasoning for this approach is often driven by the need to have a manageable number for internal communications/press office staff to work with. The easy route to take is to just work with academics who are more keen to work with comms staff in promoting their work and who are already at ease in speaking to the media. Selection of experts on these factors, while important, isn’t the optimal way to build up the profile for the institution with key audiences. First off, this approach often doesn’t yield the diversity that audiences such as journalists and potential student and faculty recruits want to see represented. This approach will also miss the mark if it just plays to popular disciplines or hot topics. Being more inclusive to promote a wider range of disciplines and specialized topics is better value all round.
Approach #3: The Faculty “Expertise Audit”
I’ve seen institutions make many mistakes in positioning their faculty as experts, given it’s a proven way to differentiate brand, build profile and reputation. That’s why I’ve started to work with several universities on what I refer to as a “faculty expertise audit”. This brings a more structured process that helps prioritize key areas of research expertise and identify specialist experts. The audit also looks at the resources and overall capacity that universities have available to support an “expertise marketing” program that optimizes all these elements to significantly boost performance.
Start with The Business Case for Expertise
At the heart of this more structured, targeted audit approach is ensuring you are generating “return-on-investment” and “value-for-effort.” A good starting point is to ask: Where is the budget coming from? Where is current and expected demand for your programs? When starting this assessment, you have to think longer than a year out. Instead, look very hard and in detail at the next three to five years (the typical cycle of research investment and university strategies) and identify which expertise is most likely to solve the problems and consequential explorations that governments, industry, benefactors/donors, and funding agencies will want to support.
I’m not saying that research areas without such sizable levels of predicted investment should be ignored – far from it – but we are in a competitive climate and universities now have to secure ‘orders’ (for applied and contracted expertise) that will ensure institutional sustainability and success. In turn, that success will allow investment in other areas that are socially vital but financially a weaker bet as regarded by funding sources.
Having proven where research funding is most available, pressing and externally directed, then the audit is designed to identify and match the institution’s research talent to these requirements. These audits involve shortlisting, enlisting and then coaching the appropriate academic experts. The best results come from one-to-one sessions with academics which create buy-in and yield a more detailed marketing plan to leverage your experts. While more inclusive, this is an efficient process designed to create a “shared roadmap” for where the university and the academic both want to take their expertise.
A large part of this roadmap then covers off other important activities such as creating a more discoverable and engaging online presence with enriched academic profiles that perform far better than the traditional “faculty directory.” Keeping online academic profiles fresh, content-rich, jargon-free, and compelling makes the job of expert ‘mining’ so much easier.
Developing a sustained program of content with an organized lead generation process is also necessary. These extra steps are where many universities miss the mark. The result is a significant loss of inbound opportunities for research grants, consulting revenues, academic collaborations as well as local and global media coverage.
I recently spoke with a Vice Chancellor of a prominent UK University who admitted that they as an institution deserved a failing grade when it came to promoting their faculty research achievements, saying that he “doubted any of their academics would be happy with the way their work was being promoted online.” This is an important aspect of the faculty audit. As a consultative process, it is non-threatening and we’re listening to staff and academics. That not only enriches the information the University has to promote its brand better, it also helps to enlist the support of the academic community who see that the university cares and that it is getting their input to put together a plan – both for the university and for individual academics. The academic is happy (they understand the value for them personally and for their institution); the University is happy (it is able to focus and prioritise its expertise in an evidence-based manner), and Communications and press office staff are happy (they have so more to work with in connecting the work of the University to a variety of local and global communities).
The Benefits of A Faculty Audit
Having completed many of these, I’ve seen very clearly, the results of a well run Faculty Audit process that without exception yield an excellent return on investment. Here are just some of the benefits to consider:
- Greater Insights: Gain a deeper understanding of the hidden strengths and opportunities within your academic ranks.
- Better Planning: A detailed report from a Faculty Audit enables a more strategic approach to planning where faculty research and expertise can support various programs within the University – such as industry engagement, media coverage and recruitment.
- Building Trust: When conducted by a third-party, a Faculty Audit is seen as more credible and less prone to perceptions of internal bias.
- More Engaged Faculty: Increased collaboration with faculty is gained through a more consultative process that builds “shared awareness” and enables more proactive support of their research.
- Increased Capacity: Producing more proactive content with faculty yields better results in terms of media coverage, research engagements, etc.
- Demonstrate Diversity: A better understanding of expertise that goes beyond the “usual suspects” to engaging a more diverse set of faculty to promote the University.
- News Coverage: Positioning your faculty and their research in a more relevant way aligns with the interests of the outside world and what’s on the mind of outsiders.
- Less Stress: A more proactive, well structured plan helps everyone to synchronise activities better versus scrambling too much to meet deadlines in the “here and now.”
Is a Faculty Audit Right for Your Institution?
Here are some key considerations when evaluating the value of a Faculty Audit for your institution. If you are answering yes to a lot of these questions, then you should look to build this approach into your planning:
- You have a stretched workload where there’s little capacity for proactive communications.
- You are tending to turn to the same academics (aka “the usual suspects”) for expert commentary in the media or elsewhere.
- You tend to get complaints (or mild mutterings) about not supporting academics enough.
- You don’t have time to get to know the wide range of academic experts in your institution – especially new arrivals or eager early career academics.
- You have adopted an ‘inside out approach’ rather than one that engages with the interests of the outside world and what’s on the mind of outsiders.
- There is weak management of expectations with the academic community – and a need for clarity and shared pathways for publicity.
- You are operating too much in the ‘here and now’ and don’t have the time to plan for future events, milestones and opportunities.
- You want to be more strategic in your comms and engagement – and make a real difference via attracting interest, income and investment.
- You don’t have an integrated approach to comms (where content can be more efficiently repurposed and recycled).
- You want more global reach and presence and can exploit digital tools to enable this.