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‘Stop inflating the language if you want to be trusted’

Universities should ‘stop inflating the language’ in their marketing communications and return to old-fashioned virtues, such as truthfulness, integrity, modesty and dedication if they want to win back public trust.

That was the blunt warning from Dr Sijbolt Noorda, the opening keynote speaker at EUPRIO’s Innsbruck conference.

Sjibolt-NoordaThe former President of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands and current President of the Academic Cooperation Association, or ACU, said he was shocked by the ‘semantic inflation’ when recently surveying the language used on 50 university business school websites.

“Everything was ‘top’, ‘world-class’ or ‘excellent’. In my book, excellence represents the top 2.5%,” he said.

Sober up the language

“I think we are building expectations that we cannot live with. If the website is so inflated, is everything else inflated in the university?”

He cited the example of one Dutch university that was ‘guaranteeing education success’ on its website and in radio ads. “We shouldn’t be doing that. We should be sobering up our language.”

Describing himself as a communication practitioner rather than an expert in communication studies and emphasising the importance of in-house communications in creating shared values, Dr Noorda said: “Universities are losing their reputation, the same is true of most public institutions.

“Trust and confidence is being eroded, and replaced by control systems based on reward and penalties.

Don’t say ‘Yes’ to everyone!

“I say to universities don’t give in to the temptation to say ‘Yes’ to every request from the authorities. If you try to satisfy the short-term interests of different parties and stakeholders you’ll end up as a general web store providing whatever is currently demanded.

“We are educating the graduates for the next 40 years and doing research and innovation for future years. If we only accept the demands of the present, we are not being the future-oriented creative source that we’re supposed to be.”

Acknowledging that the game has changed and that the long period of growth with taxpayers’ support being taken for granted was over, Dr Noorda urged universities to remain true to their core identity and independent mission.

“Simply pleasing society, pampering students and delivering research results on demand is not what a university is supposed to be doing.

“We are an independent, open and forward-looking community of scholars, or that is what we should be, and it is important we remember this in the way we respond to society’s needs, care for students’ development and deliver useful research results.

Mustn’t be sweet-talking

“To be trustworthy, we must base our style on and remain truly faithful to our independent identity and mission. We mustn’t be sweet-talking.”

But that’s precisely what universities are guilty of, he said, when they over-inflate their language. “We cannot all be the best.”

The way forward, said Dr Noorda, was to return to old-fashioned values and virtues, such as ‘truthfulness, integrity, modesty and dedication.’

“We shouldn’t shy back from transferring these values from the lofty statements about our institutions to the personal, individual responsibilities and work styles of each and every one of us.

Can’t buy trust

“Trust is not something you can buy, it must be given.

“So if we strike a deal with a major firm, it shouldn’t just be defined to research results, but should be done in value-oriented terms.

“And although it is all too rarely done, why shouldn’t we make it explicit to the government when they are funding us that we will endeavour to get all our students to a point that represents the best of their abilities.

Social value of universities

“Universities have a responsibility to teach all students, including those struggling. That’s the social value of our universities.
“And when communicating with the public, be proud – but within limits. There is no need to inflate your language.

“If you are a good regional university in Germany doing great things for your area, be proud of that. You don’t have to be another Berlin or Munich.

“Limit yourself to what you can do best and remember that education is the transition from one generation to another, whether at primary, secondary or higher level. Don’t just address the needs and possibilities of the talented few.”

+ Dr Noorda’s talk was titled ‘Can universities be trusted?’ and he was speaking at the annual conference of the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, hosted by the University of Innsbruck earlier this month.