After a burst of negative publicity, the professor, Larycia Hawkins, resigned from Wheaton and accepted a job at the University of Virginia. UVA’s embrace of Hawkins, which played out in the media, symbolized the conservative/liberal divide of religious vs. public colleges in America’s collective imagination.
By taking on such public battles, conspicuously conservative colleges are merely taking advantage of public and elite colleges' growing reputation as hotbeds of anti-Christian, liberal views and contrasting that image with their own campuses. For example, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today reported, with alarm, on the temporary “de-recognition” of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship by the California State University system, which was concerned that the ministry violated the school’s discrimination policies. And last year, California lawmakers, concerned about LGBT rights, considered a bill that would have jeopardized funding at religious colleges with rules against same-sex relationships.
While public universities are facing criticism from religious-liberty advocates—and while elite private colleges are having heated debates about offensive Halloween costumes—branding experts say other colleges sense a marketing opportunity.
This marketing tactic makes sense, said Stuart Elliott, who wrote about advertising for The New York Times for 23 years. “In the last 10 or 20 years, it's become quite common for brands to take political or social stands, sometimes as part of pro-social marketing or cause marketing, sometimes as part of efforts to reach younger consumers,” he said. “It doesn't surprise me that in the higher education world a similar strategy would be embraced.”
Indeed, in her study of “underdog” brands, Jill Avery, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, found that some brands can benefit from politicizing themselves. “Colleges that are politicizing themselves are going to enable students to self-select into organizations that share their political beliefs,” she said. “If there is a group of prospective college students who feel disenfranchised by the mainstream college-admissions messaging, which, at most universities, leans liberal, then there may be an opportunity to attract them with more conservative messaging.”
But if college campuses become too politically and ideologically segregated, will evangelical groups vanish from public universities? Will “College Democrats” clubs vanish from religious campuses? In short, will college branding cause the nation to become even more politically divided?
It won’t happen, said Abu Noaman, the CEO of Elliance, a digital-marketing agency that has worked on branding for about 100 colleges and universities, including Pepperdine, a private university in Malibu, California, affiliated with the Churches of Christ that’s known for its relatively conservative student body, and Duquesne, a Catholic university in Pittsburgh. “Because modernity, a hunt for full-pay students, and a search for the best global talent have created an irreversible march toward diversity, the emphasis on unique branding of colleges will not preclude diversity of viewpoints on campuses,” he said. “Faculty will be obliged to serve, and help students make sense of, this emergent world.”