The modern higher education system is going through an identity crisis.
More students are questioning the skyrocketing cost of going to college. At the same time, the underlying financial stability of many small academic institutions remains unclear.
This is particularly true of smaller, non-urban liberal arts universities – more than 800 of which have closed over the last decade. Revenue shifts, the erosion of state funding, and the lingering effects of the Great Recession have made sustaining colleges and universities a difficult task.
But how do you navigate the political, reputational, and financial impacts of assessing whether an institution can survive? In 2017, the executive leadership and Board of Trustees of Marylhurst University turned to Hubbell as it assessed its path forward.
At its peak in 2011, the university had 2,000 students. By 2018, enrollment had fallen to under 800. With an endowment of $21 million, there were many questions around the long-term viability of Marylhurst.
Hubbell began its work as the Board of Trustees was creating a roadmap for improved revenue and diversification of revenue streams. At first, our efforts focused on elevating the university’s sustainable market advantage in academics through a robust public relations strategy.
Hubbell worked with university leadership as it assessed its financial sustainability and a viable path forward. Following a difficult decision to close, our team coordinated every facet of a complex public relations effort to manage the internal and external communications of this monumental decision.
Despite having little debt, the reality of the deficits required to turn things around forced leadership to begin weighing if the financially responsible move was the closure of the institution.
Our team built a crisis communications plan as the Board of Trustees began considering its options. We worked alongside leadership to develop a step-by-step strategy to address every communications aspect of a closure—from media relations to employee and student communications to community outreach.
In 2018, an official vote was made to close the university.
Hubbell’s role shifted from a promotional narrative to a reputational manager as we implemented Marylhurst’s messaging around a closure plan. Our goal was to convey a smooth transition and honor the university’s legacy.
We helped university leadership focus on its message while navigating the challenges of diverse media and community reactions to this decision. In doing so, we:
- Created a thought leadership strategy focused on the issues facing higher education nationally.
- Developed a media relations toolkit to ensure leadership could manage incoming reporter inquiries
- Operationalized a crisis communications “war room” to manage sustained media coverage throughout several phases of the closure.
- Guided leadership in managing internal communications and forums with staff and students.
- Conducted media training with university leadership.
Throughout this evolving media situation, our focus was conveying the difficulty of the decision to close and the national trends impacting numerous higher education institutions. In addition, we helped refocus the community on the importance of investing in higher education – while drawing attention to the continuing affordability and accessibility crisis for diverse populations.