Colleges and The Metropolitan Revolution

While we heed one alarm after another signaling the decline of higher education as we know it (brick and mortar campuses made irrelevant by more, better and cheaper online courses and degree programs) a counter revolution can be seen and heard, in the form of heaving equipment digging foundations, paving roads and pouring fresh concrete.

A new book from the Brookings Institution Press, The Metropolitan Revolution, explores in detail how cities and metros are “fixing our broken politics and fragile economy.” Not surprisingly, colleges play an increasingly active and vital role in the revolution.

All cities thrive today thanks in large part to concentrations of land, people, investment capital, talent, amenities, ideas and innovation. Colleges and universities provide many of these key ingredients.

Authors Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley describe a variety of “anchor plus” innovation districts with major higher education and academic medical center tenants.  The paradigm traces to the 1980s when research powerhouse MIT first joined with developer Forest City Enterprises to create what is now marketed as “the densest square mile of innovation on the planet.”

Today, less than four miles away along a once forgotten stretch of the south Boston waterfront, a new collection of public and private groups advances the model. This time, it’s Wellesley-based Babson College providing “hatchery space” for start-ups created by  its MBA alums and other graduates, while also delivering full-time and evening satellite programs.

Among the many things required for a college to make such a bold step — vision, leadership, and a tolerance for risk — there is the more subtle issue of brand clarity and elasticity. While juggernauts like MIT and largely single-focused schools such as Babson College can move decisively toward such opportunities, many traditional four-year liberal arts colleges look on from the sidelines with a mix of envy and hesitation.

Often such colleges consider investments in their higher education brand coherence more luxury than necessity, and relegate brand to a marketing and enrollment line item rather than a multi-year capital expenditure.

The proliferation of skin-deep, tagline-driven campaigns that pose as strategic branding further weaken the case for how a well-considered brand foundation can support larger institutional aspirations, critical new partnerships and unprecedented diversification and reach.

A good example of why it’s important to think strategically before you act creatively is work ongoing at Elliance to help the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine re-imagine its future. The aim of this branding effort goes far beyond a desire to compete for more and better students among a group of seven naturopathic medical schools. Changes in national health care policy, and a pendulum swing in how Americans gauge choices related to their health, sets the stage for something more far-reaching.

Far more than a campaign, the strategic depth, clarity and consideration behind the new Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine brand will allow school leaders to explore new and greater roles for their faculty, research talent, donors, students, and alumni — and for the school to become a catalyst for a larger revolution in which Americans claim greater agency in their health.