Do universities need to market themselves? The question has become rhetorical. Universities market themselves extensively and show no sign of pulling back.

In this issue’s lead articles, Ken Steele and David Scott explain that universities engage in marketing for a variety of reasons: to raise public recognition and bolster an institution’s reputation, to attract prospective students, and to establish an institution as worthy of public and private sector support.

But how universities market themselves has become a concern. Scott’s article focuses on the questionable marketing use of the rankings found in surveys such as Maclean’s and the Times Higher Education Supplement. Steele writes that negative advertising, such as Lakehead University’s “Yale Shmale” campaign and Algoma University’s more recent “Colossal U” ads , “run[s] the risk of backfiring and damaging institutional reputations in the long run.”

As a marketing practitioner, however, Steele argues that when done properly and ethically, marketing is both important and valuable, since it can elevate the perceived worth of a university among potential students, faculty, alumni, and the public. One can sell the institution without selling out the academy. Whether that is the case is subject to much debate.

The issue of institutional marketing also raises some larger—and broader—questions. Does marketing one institution also serve to market higher education in general?

As part of a marketing campaign, for example, a university might emphasize its research accomplishments, its award-winning faculty, its high-profile commentators, and its links to business and government. On the competitive terrain of university marketing, institutional promotion comes first. Universities have been less effective in promoting higher education. Periodically, university umbrella organizations launch advertising awareness initiatives to promote the general value of universities to the public and to government. A few years ago, for example, the Council of Ontario Universities ran a media campaign asking viewers to imagine a world without the inventions which are the result of university research, such as breakthroughs in medicine, communications, and physics. And institutions do practise subtle forms of marketing higher education (and themselves) through community outreach programmes such as public lectures, podcasts, and organized cultural events. But, in general, it has been left to others, such as faculty and student organizations with much fewer resources, to champion the value of higher education.

This is also true when it comes to speaking candidly about the impact of underfunding on higher education. Institutional promotion seemingly precludes a willingness to speak frankly about the damage of insufficient resources. No university wants to draw attention to crowded classrooms, obsolete equipment, or deteriorating libraries and other facilities on campus. The damage of inadequate investment is periodically highlighted at the system level by university umbrella organizations only to be diminished by the boosterism of institutional marketing campaigns. Again, it is left student and faculty organizations to voice real concerns about deteriorating quality.

What impact has this had on public perceptions of higher education? In the public mind the view is that universities are places where students can get an education leading to well-paying employment. This view is understandable, given public anxiety about the labour market, the economy, and the successful employment rates of university graduates.

More distant and abstract for the public is the notion of universities as critical to fostering a “knowledge economy” and all that entails. But an enduring public commitment to higher education depends on fostering awareness of the importance of universities not only to the economy but also to everyday existence. What universities do has an impact on virtually every aspect of our lives— our health, the way we communicate, how we organize our cities and towns, our culture, the environment, our understanding of the past and present.

Essentially, nurturing that type of public commitment involves defining higher education as a public good that creates pervasive and enduring public benefits. In a climate that emphasizes only the private benefits and private returns of higher education, the public benefits of higher education can get lost. Emphasizing the private benefits of university may enhance the persuasiveness of institutional marketing but can also diminish the value the public places on the public benefits of higher education.

Fostering a strong perception of universities as a public good is in the long-term interest of public higher education—and it is marketing the academy at its best.

Mark Rosenfeld is editor-in-chief of Academic Matters and associate executive director of OCUFA