Early in my career, I worked as director of marketing and communications for a relatively small Appalachian liberal arts college.
The school’s academics and mission to the region were good. However, the college was so remotely situated that it was not well known outside its region, posing a challenge for expanded fundraising.
Our new, young president wanted to do something about our obscurity and hired an educational consultant from Chicago to advise him on the school’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of marketing. The consultant’s final, exhaustive marketing report came in, and I was bracing for its candor.
Again, the school’s academics and mission were given high marks. However, in terms of internal assets to help “sell” the college to a broader audience, only one page in the report was needed.
The consultant concluded that the school’s well-regarded traveling choir, which toured a different region of the country each spring, was noteworthy. In fact, he concluded that this student choir was the only immediately available asset that could be invested in to help achieve more positive public relations to the outside world.
The consultant was emphatic: Place more resources into showcasing the choir for both marketing and advancement purposes.
In short, play your strong suit.
The West Virginia Legislature has a similar, obvious choice to make each year, when it comes to securing funds for higher education, specifically for Marshall and West Virginia universities.
Both institutions are facing cuts when other areas in the budget go untouched. Yet, like the aforementioned student choir, these two schools are oftentimes all West Virginia has to engage the outside world.
Yes, we have other fine institutions of higher education in West Virginia. However, only WVU and Marshall are household names nationally, because of the number of students who attend there, certain well-regarded programs or the recognition that comes from participating in NCAA athletics. Each of these sizable institutions has had its critics, but no other state institutions have the sheer external reach that Marshall and WVU have.
Every state-supported institution should justify any support given to it by the taxpayers. The crucial role played by both of these universities, however, is so important that reductions to their budget outlays requires an explanation, as well.
From now on, the Legislature should secure all funding for Marshall and WVU in the general budget each year, not hoping for the best with a portion of it to be derived from any surplus the year. That is playing fast and loose with two of the state’s most recognizable assets.
Imagine how diminished West Virginia would be with Marshall and WVU gone or increasingly existing as a shadow of their former selves. Next year, legislators should secure these two universities’ funding in the regular budget.