Sat, Apr

University of California Publicity Campaign Unnecessary, Misguided


GUEST COMMENTARY--Some state legislators and student leaders called a University of California advertising campaign “tone-deaf” and accused the University of a “cover-up” after they learned that the UC spent $158,000 on online ads and radio time promoting its good practices.

The advertisements were intended to defend the UC after a March state audit, which found the UC had lowered admission standards for nonresident students in order to raise revenue. In the advertisements, the University pointed to highlights from its rebuttal to the audit, including the fact that 84 percent of UC undergraduates hail from California.

The spending didn’t hurt students, and it had good intentions. But it further damaged the University’s image and was not only unnecessary but ultimately ineffective.

The state’s audit lacked sorely-needed context that residents need to be aware of when assessing their stake in and access to California’s higher education system, such as the University’s balancing act between serving in-state students and enrolling out-of-state students, who can provide three times the amount of tuition dollars and help the University’s precarious financial situation. Given this, the UC’s motivations were understandable.

However, the University seriously misread the state of public opinion when it decided that spending money on an advertising campaign was the best way to improve their standing with the public. Instead, the move brought sharp criticism from California State Assembly member Catharine Baker, who called it “tone-deaf”, and University of California Student Association president Kevin Sabo, who said the University thought it was “above transparency.”

While the money came from the University’s endowment funds earmarked for administrative purposes, this represents a serious waste of resources. UC spokesperson Dianne Klein told the Sacramento Bee that the University thought it was necessary to promote a positive message because of negative press’ power to dominate the conversation surrounding the audit.

It was a worthy effort, but the university decided to try creating this positive message through a $158,000 ad campaign instead of using its existing press corps or spending the money on community engagement. In other words, the University spent money to flood Californians with information to reflect its struggle with the state. This is certainly not on par with a cover-up, but it isn’t the wisest use of University resources.

Instead, the University should be calling attention to the root cause of the enrollment controversy: years of underfunding from the state government. Danny Siegel, Undergraduate Student Association Council president, told The Bruin just that in an interview earlier this week: “The onus is on the state for this (spending). The UC wouldn’t be enrolling so many out-of-state students if the state wasn’t underfunding UC in the first place.”

Just as the state failed to acknowledge how its declining contribution to the UC has created the need for nonresident enrollment, the UC failed to acknowledge that residents don’t just need to know more about the UC, but rather need to be better engaged with it and its issues.

(This Daily Bruin Editorial Board commentary was posted originally by the UCLA Daily Bruin.)