How to Raise a University’s Profile: Pricing and Packaging

With the UO Trustees on the lookout for a new president, a reminder of the snake-oil salesmen that will likely be applying for the job seems in order. The NYT has a hagiographic piece by Kevin Carey on former president Stephen Trachtenberg and the rise of George Washington University, here:

The George Washington University came with some assets, most importantly a prime location just a few blocks from the White House, but it had little money and suffered from an inferiority complex. “I was given an institution and told, ‘Make this place better,’ ” Mr. Trachtenberg said, “ ‘and by the way, be embarrassed that you’re not Georgetown.’ ”

Everyone wanted something from him: better facilities, better colleagues, better students — and all of those things cost money. He had no base of rich alumni like the Ivies or Georgetown did. Fund-raising was a chicken-and-egg problem: Rich people wanted to support something that was already excellent, but excellence as they understood it required millions of dollars to buy.

Mr. Trachtenberg, however, understood something crucial about the modern university. It had come to inhabit a market for luxury goods. People don’t buy Gucci bags merely for their beauty and functionality. They buy them because other people will know they can afford the price of purchase. The great virtue of a luxury good, from the manufacturer’s standpoint, isn’t just that people will pay extra money for the feeling associated with a name brand. It’s that the high price is, in and of itself, a crucial part of what people are buying.

It turns this is mostly bullshit. Paul Campos of LawyersGunsandMoney does the fact-checking, here:

This, again, turns out to be not merely untrue, but an inversion of the truth. When Trachtenberg arrived, George Washington was already one of the richest universities in the nation, with an endowment larger than that possessed by nearly 99% of the nation’s institutions of higher learning. Specifically, in 1987 GW’s endowment of $216.25 million placed it 46th among America’s colleges and universities, ahead of, among about 4,000 other institutions, Georgetown.

What fiscal magic did Trachtenberg work during his two decades at the helm? By the time he left, George Washington had the 64th largest endowment in the nation. In other words, the school’s endowment was actually smaller, in comparative terms (and after all, Trachtenberg’s claims regarding his supposed accomplishments are explicitly about the changes in the school’s comparative status during his tenure), at the end of his presidency than it had been when he took office.

Here’s hoping our Parker Executive Search firm is just as skeptical and rigorous on the fact-checking. The BOT has no experience with presidential searches, their search committee has minimal faculty participation, and they are going to make the hire before the campus even knows our new president’s name.

Tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.