Monday, October 8, 2007
MOVING TO FRONT from August 22, 2006: it seems to me that more schools are, happily, following this advice, judging from what's been arriving in my mailbox. There are a few schools still wasting money by sending out alumni magazines, but by and large I've found this year's batch of mailings to be more informative and succint than in prior years. I'm curious what others think. (Comments are open; no anonymous postings. Post only once.)
MOVING TO FRONT from September 2005, since this is once again timely
...since everyone wants to get their news out before the new U.S. News surveys get sent out. Yesterday, I received promotional materials from six different law schools! I read, or at least skim, many of these publications, since it's usually interesting to learn about new faculty hires and recent publications. I know I'm also the exception, as I watch many of my colleagues dump these items straight in the trash. Law schools are now spending hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars on these promotional efforts, but I do wish schools would follow a few simple rules when mailing materials to other academics:
(1) Don't send your brochure in an envelope. Bear in mind that most faculty throw these publications out, right along with the latest junk mail from Aspen, West, the ABA, the AALS, and so on. The easier it is to open, the more folks will read it. If there' s no envelope--if a school sends, instead, a postcard or brochure-style mailing--then even those who throw it out may at least learn something as they glance at the cover as it sails into the circular filing cabinet.
(2) Don't include information on every member of your faculty. Not all faculty are created equal from the standpoint of academic achievement, reputation of your school, or interest to professional peers--just as not all faculty are created equal from the standpoint of teaching ability, institutional service, or interpersonal skills. If you're sending out a brochure to impress your academic colleagues, send out a brochure that features the faculty who impress your academic colleagues. If a school can't muster the institutional courage to discriminate, don't waste the money sending out a brochure at all. Remember: if Harvard sent out a brochure profiling every member of its faculty, you'd be shocked at some of the bozos and deadwood!
(3) Don't send lists of publications--lists are mind-numbingly boring, and lists of publications make for bad reading, i.e., almost no one reads them. Pick the faculty you want to feature, and include some narrative information, with perhaps a short list of representative publications.
(4) Don't include long letters from Deans--no other academic cares what lies and puffery your Dean wants to tell. A Dean's letter longer than 200 words is too long.
(5) Don't send the magazine you send to alumni to other academics--what alumni find interesting and edifying, your professional peers largely view as boring and ridiculous. Remember, too, that the ridiculous puffery schools can pass off on their alumni will simply embarrass a school in front of those who actually know something. NYU's alumni magazine during the Sexton years became the laughing-stock of the legal academy for exactly these reasons; their reputational scores in U.S. News even declined during this time despite tangible improvements in faculty quality!
(6) Do keep it short and sweet. I like the new USD brochure: it consists of four pages (including front and back covers), and on page two I learn whom they have hired, and the rest is gravy (I only skimmed the rest). The new Penn State/Dickinson brochure had good information on new faculty hires and also observed rule #2 quite effectively...but it was a bit long, with lots of page-turning required, and, most unfortunately, they violated rule #1, which no doubt means many law faculty never registered some of the interesting lateral hires there.
Bear in mind, of course, that Professor Stake's research shows fairly clearly that the biggest influence on the U.S. News academic reputation surveys is not the quality of your faculty or student body (why should that matter to academic reputation, after all?), it's your most recent overall ranking in U.S. News! (We actually stopped sending out our annual "Recent Faculty News" brochures from the late 1990s (on which so many of the current mailings are obviously modelled) when it became clear that adding to our faculty Bernard Black from Stanford, Ronald Mann from Michigan, and Larry Sager from NYU (among many others), together with a dramatic increase in student credentials, was correlated with a decline in our academic reputation according to U.S. News! We now produce shorter promotional items at irregular intervals.) So if you're going to produce such materials, don't do it with an expectation that it will affect U.S. News, except maybe over the very long-term. Do it because scholarly and professional accomplishments deserve recognition from your professional peers. And perhaps, too, it will have some effect on more reliable measures of academic quality!
UPDATE: A law school Dean writes:
In your critique of law school mass mailings I wish you had mentioned deans who send along a reprint of an article published by a member of his or her faculty that appears in a so-so journal, accompanied by a fulsome letter essentially arguing that the work shifts the paradigm. If that is the best a dean can do then the inference actually raised is that he or she has a faculty populated by mediocre scholars.
I've opened comments for other feedback on what does and doesn't work in these promotional brochures sent to law faculty.