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What College Administrators Can Learn From Political Campaigns

The worlds of college administration and political campaigning aren’t terribly different. Both involve engaging a target audience, listening and responding to its needs and building trust.

In the November 2022 election, I was a candidate for a local school board in western Michigan. Although I was not successful in my pursuit, it was close, as each candidate in my three-candidate race received approximately a third of the votes. Along the way, I began to see connections between my experience as a candidate and my work as a university administrator, particularly when it came to leading change.

To start, consider that current social, political and technological challenges are driving universities to innovate—both ideas and effective action. Discussing this reality, Derek Thompson wrote in a recent issue of The Atlantic: “The way individuals and institutions take an idea from one to 1 billion is the story of how the world really changes.” He further observed that innovation can happen in private, but implementation is “necessarily public.”  For a university, the public is faculty, staff, students and the broader community.

One of the most public activities is a political campaign, where a candidate, with their staff and supporters, takes an idea from one (“I could be a good school board member”) to many (“I voted for Ed”). There are some useful concepts in campaigning for elected office that can be transferred to implementation work at universities. How do we win the campaign and implement innovations on campus?

The answer to that question starts with the observation that campaigns are more about values than policies. As I started my campaign last summer, I took to heart an idea from Dante Atkins, a progressive strategist: “The first thing you learn in messaging school: people care way more about shared values than technocratic policy wonkery.” Voters will gravitate to candidates that appear to share their values, asking questions about policy details in political platforms later (if at all). Eventually, those mutual values might be captured symbolically with something like a red hat or a campaign slogan (such as my “Ed for Ed”).

Voters behave this way because, limited by time and personal expertise, they are basically using an idea from lateral reading to make sense of campaign issues. If a candidate can be considered a credible source of information—if the candidate is trusted—then their voters will be more willing to vote for the candidate and to accept the changes for which the candidate is advocating. The candidate becomes an authority, and their words are viewed as relevant and accurate. (Some readers will recognize concepts from the CRAAP method of evaluating sources.)

Isn’t academia different, though? Isn’t it steeped in a culture of the written word, with dissertations, clever arguments and complex solutions of policy and procedure? Maybe, but people are people, and shared values are just as important to the public at a university as it is to the public in a school board race. By values, I don’t just mean student success, universal belonging or creating new knowledge, I mean something more fundamental such as honesty, courage, gratitude and adaptability. Academic leaders who uphold these values become trusted, the public views them as good at governance, and they will be supported as leaders of a campaign for innovation.

Communicating these fundamental values is another challenge that political candidates face, as do campus leaders. I started my school board campaign with a private exercise to clarify which of my values I wanted to emphasize in my campaign. I decided on a vision statement with language to repeat regularly, with phrases like “excellent schools,” “welcoming schools,” “creative leadership,” “evidence-based,” “help our kids to thrive” and “our democracy to prosper.”  And these weren’t empty phrases—these values matched who I was. But what was the best way to get the word out?

Some opportunities were handed to me: surveys with public responses sent by the school district administration or political action committees, a candidate forum with a live audience that was broadcast and a bit of attention from the local press. Then, I had other options to choose from: social media (especially Facebook), yard signs and billboards, mailings (post office or email), phone calls and texts, radio and TV ads, and door-to-door canvassing. I didn’t choose all these options—some because of costs (radio and TV), but others felt inappropriate (robocalls,—texts,—emails), particularly in a race that was officially non-partisan. For any choice, though, the point was to discuss issues that conveyed my fundamental values while accepting that most voters didn’t have a lot of time to pay attention to “Ed for Ed.”

Back on campus, while mass emails are leaders’ communication method of choice, there are other options to consider. I found recording short videos of three minutes or less and sharing on social media an effective way to communicate policy specifics and shared values. Having other sources, unassociated with a campaign conveyed that the content was trustworthy. Live events turned out to be quite effective, whether it was a candidate forum or talking to individuals or families door-to-door. At a university, that means attending faculty, staff and student meetings to listen and share, and to look for other, informal opportunities to canvass.

Of course, just as a political campaign isn’t a one-person effort, neither is implementing innovation, as Thompson was communicating above. Campus leaders need to build teams to do the work, and those teams also need to be trusted. Team members are the most critical part of the campaign because word-of-mouth is so important. In the school board election, I needed each supporter I met—primarily district residents such as parents and grandparents—to bring my candidacy to the attention of ten other district voters. I eventually started to ask supporters to do that—and this matters because, to implement innovation well, you really must ask individuals for action and not just expect it.

Finally, it is important to state that despite what I have shared, it is not a good idea to implement innovation in academia by faithfully reproducing a political campaign. On campus, administrative skill matters, and one skill is knowing what to say, when and how to say it. For instance, many faculty, staff and students will not like the idea that they are somehow the target of a campaign, especially if initiatives on campus are described with the word “campaign.”  The practices in this article can be used inappropriately such as providing a monologue at a faculty meeting rather than a dialogue. And slogans can be met with rolling eyes if there is a sense that they are not honest or if they cross the line from inspiring to silly. (An example of a great slogan from the past at my institution is “writing across the curriculum,” which helped focus curriculum development for several years.)

If the North Star is building trust and cultivating acceptance for an authentic and intelligent evolution of the university’s work, there will eventually be much to celebrate together.

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