The Public Scholarship Manifesto
This treatise contains 10 proclamations for higher educational institutions that desire to unleash the creative potential of thought leadership and expand their cultural influence.
This manifesto presents a set of principles that challenge higher ed. leaders and academics to make difficult decisions that will transform how public scholarship is done. It describes a trail blazed by thought leaders who have made the difficult and courageous decision to transform their institutions. They have resisted the economic pressures and scarcity mindset to toe the economic and job security line. They have gone from being the affordable and safe choice to being thought leaders that attract higher quality students who attend their school based on an emotional connection with those academics.
- We will not hide behind our work
- We will build a tribe
- We will specialize
- We will stop talking about ourselves
- We will out-teach our competition
- We will behave like a media company
- We will document and not create
- We will empower our faculty & staff to build their own personal brands
- We will no longer be a 4 year experience. We will be an educational institution for life
- We will no longer prioritize prospective students above everything else
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We will not hide behind our work
Traditionally, scholarship is primarily done through engagement with your guild, published books, and in-person events. Many academics don’t know how to do thought leadership in higher education beyond these avenues.
Many have bought into the “Field of Dreams” fallacy: “Build it and they will come.” They hide behind their work and hope that it will speak for itself. Truth is, this strategy almost never works. Academics spend several years writing and publishing books that no one reads.
Almost every academic I’ve met has shared that they like being “under the radar” and that they don’t like to put themselves out there. Ironically, they insist on being “assertively humble”. However, many are beginning to recognize that need for a public platform for themselves and for their departments.
We will build a tribe
Effective public scholarship requires building a tribe. For your scholarship to reach far and wide, your most important asset is an audience who trusts you and sees you as a thought leader. You need to be someone the tribe looks to for clarity, wisdom, and insight.
You don’t need millions of people in your tribe. Don’t aim for an immediate bestseller. Just focus on creating a space for what Kevin Kelly calls “1,000 true fans,” a small group of people who fiercely respect and trust your thought leadership. “1,000 true fans” who will actually show up when you invite them to attend your personal event.
Your tribe will follow your leadership. They are your life-long collaborators and fans. They show up when you ask. They notice when you don’t show up.
Building a website and creating content is not the hard part. Everyone has a beautiful website. The hard part is getting people to keep coming back to them.
A Christian book publisher was recently asked who they were publishing. They answered, “Mommy bloggers who have a mailing list.” The keyword here is “mailing list”. When you successfully build an email list of 10,000 people who religiously consume your content each week, you can write whatever you want, and it will get published. Don’t spend 5 years writing a book that nobody reads. Spend 5 years building a tribe, and you can publish 10, well-read books over the next 30 years.
We will Specialize
Students, donors and alumni can seek alternatives to your institution, because there are so many substitutes for what you’re currently offering.
The world does not need another common-denominator institution. There are enough institutions that integrate faith and learning. The world is drowning in undifferentiated institutions.
When there are alternatives, the prospective student selects their school based on affordability, the prestige of receiving a degree from there, and the alumni’s employment rate after graduation.
The only way to specialize and differentiate is through our people.
More than ever before, we need thoughtful public intellectuals and authors to share their work with the world.
We will stop talking about ourselves
Audiences pay attention when you deliver something they value. Ultimately, consistently delivering value is what brings audiences back to your website.
Unless you’re a university with a D1 sports teams, nobody comes to school for your teams. You need to give them a different reason to come—the value you have added to their lives. Announcements and generic news are not valuable content to your audience. Instead, your brand platform should focus on your mission: scholarship & education.
Audiences are looking for content that will make a different in their lives. They are hungry for content that they can apply to their career, ministry, family life, spiritual life, etc.
We will out-teach our competition
Leverage your greatest strength: teaching. When you can’t outspend your competition, out-teach your competition.
Academics are trained to equip and shape the minds of the next generation of leaders. Academics are well equipped to stand and teach in front of a classroom and in front of large audiences. They’re made to be in front of a video camera or behind a mic.
The best way to build a tribe and earn the trust of your audience is to deliver value and to educate. Teaching is much more effective than hype.
We will behave like a media company
Effective public scholarship recognizes that we need to place a far greater emphasis on distribution. Great work in your guild alone is not enough to face the adaptive challenges and the disruption that higher education is facing. An effective distribution allow you to engage with your audience whenever you want.
We will become a non-substitutable resource for our constituents. We will be the equivalent of the Harvard Business Review for our audience. We do this by delivering valuable content that makes a difference in people’s lives.
The currency of a media company is your audience and your distribution channel. It’s whether or not you have the attention of a captive audience. The key to building an audience is consistency. In order for you to establish and maintain a strong relationship with your tribe, they need to hear from you on a regular schedule. Much like how people look forward to their favorite television show, your audience should expect to learn from you on a weekly basis, if not multiple times a week. Your audience should complain if they don’t receive your email each week.
Most people spend 80% of their time making new content and spend the remaining 20% on promoting it. The opposite is far better. 80% of your energy should go into building an audience/promoting your work and only 20% of your energy into creating new content.
We will document and not create
Document what you’re already doing every single day. You already have 120% on your plate. Don’t be overwhelmed by the thought of having to create new content for your audience. You’re already doing great scholarship and great work. Document your conversations, your classes, your interactions with people in your industry. Your tribe is interested in not only the final product but the process.
Repurpose your content. You already have years’ worth of content in your dissertations, your class materials, and your books. Don’t be overwhelmed with the idea that you need to create brand new content for a new audience. Just take existing content and tweak it for your audience. It doesn’t take much more effort than turning your talk or your class lecture into a series of blog posts or videos.
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We will empower our faculty & staff to build their own personal brands
Building the thought leader’s personal brand and platforms should be considered a strategic investment that benefits the higher educational institution. As the faculty’s brand grows, so does the college’s brand.
Institutions that intentionally invest in the faculty’s personal brand and platform will attract hungry and upcoming academics who want to build their own personal brand. In addition, it will help with retaining successful academics.
Academics are encouraged to blog, give interviews, write books, and engage with the public, but higher education institutions fail to integrate public scholarship into their strategic plan. Public scholarship is usually not a primary consideration for tenure. The scholars who have successfully built a platform have mostly done it on their own, without help or support from their institutions.
In a competitive higher education market, the majority of marketing & communications budgets are allocated for prospective student recruitment. What’s missing is the operational capacity and infrastructure to support the academic staff in building personal brands/platforms.
We will no longer be a 4 year experience. We will be an educational institution for life.
Currently, an alumni’s relationship with their alma mater is nothing more than a nostalgic memory of 4 impressionable years of their past. The college they graduated from no longer maintains a meaningful connection to their daily lives. Unless you’re a D1 university, you can’t build an emotional connection with your brand without differentiating yourself through your mission and thought leadership.
Instead of being a 4-year experience in a student’s life, become a tribe that we join for life. Prospective students should join this tribe because of a clear, differentiated positioning that is not substitutable.
How to Solve Christian Scholarship's Distribution Problem
Read the Anxious Bench’s interview with John Hwang.
We will no longer prioritize prospective students above everything else
Institutions are operating on a “scarcity mindset,” due to financial constraints, limited resources, and constant competition. Functioning out of a scarcity mindset inevitably leads to short-term thinking. Short-term thinking leads institutions to focus on attracting prospective students above everything else. Currently, your value proposition for prospective students and parents boils down to job prospects and affordability, which are only so attractive.
Instead, Christian institutions should invest in long-term strategies such as increasing their endowments and strengthening their brand. Choosing which college to attend should be an emotional decision rather than an economic one.
A strong brand allows you to differentiate yourself within the competitive landscape. Having a world-class, world-famous faculty and staff is a wonderful way to build your institution’s brand. It’s also a great way for alumni and donors to align with the mission of the institution. But your faculty and staff won’t get there without strong personal brands.