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Editorial: Fixing the Dartmouth Brand

All things considered, we much preferred the days when branding was something done to cattle rather than something colleges did to themselves in an effort to market their educational wares to impressionable young people and their parents. That no doubt reflects the archaic view that higher education is not a commodity but a calling for those privileged enough to teach and learn in that environment. Nowadays the market rules, on campus as everywhere else.

So it is at Dartmouth, where the college’s extended community in Hanover and across the country is wondering whether the turmoil of recent years has inflicted severe reputational damage and tarnished the college’s “brand.”

As staff writer Rick Jurgens reported last Sunday, views differ widely among students, alumni, parents and people who study such things professionally as they ponder the effect of widely publicized incidents of sexual assault, hazing, binge drinking and overt hostility to members of minority groups that have occurred since the beginning of 2013. Where some observers see a passing cloud, others fear that a real storm is brewing on Dartmouth’s horizon.

College officials seem to be among the latter, alarmed especially by a sharp decline in applications for admission, which dropped 14 percent this year after a 3 percent decline the previous year. Overall applications to the Ivy League schools, by contrast, were up 2 percent in each of the past two years, so something is amiss. Indeed, Steve Mandel, chairman of the trustees, characterized the decline at Dartmouth as “an important wake-up call.”

On the other hand, the alumni are voting with their wallets, as gifts rose 4 percent in fiscal 2013, to $67.9 million from $65.2 million the previous year. This does not suggest that their confidence in or affection for their alma mater has been shaken. In any case, the college hired in 2012 a director of market research whose job it is to understand the needs and perceptions of Dartmouth’s alumni and parents, and boost their financial support for and involvement with the college.

Some of the experts consulted by Jurgens suggested that perception is reality when it comes to an institution’s “brand” and that Dartmouth has to be careful not to overreact to ugly incidents lest it become the victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We’re inclined to think that, to the contrary, the best way to enhance the brand is to ignore enhancing the brand and to fix expeditiously those things that are wrong. Reputations that took a long time to build are damaged surprisingly easily, but there’s no way to quickly rebuild them. That is painstaking work that has to be undertaken sincerely, without regard for the public relations value.

President Phil Hanlon seems to grasp that and took the essential first step in April by candidly acknowledging the severity of the problem, declaring that enough is enough and vowing to fix it. After reviewing examples of what he called “extreme behaviors,” Hanlon said that: “The actions I have detailed are antithetical to everything that we stand for and hope for our students to be. There is a grave disconnect between our culture in the classroom and the behaviors outside it — behaviors which too often seek not to elevate the human spirit, but debase it.”

In an odd sort of way, that statement defines a “brand” that Dartmouth could be proud of “marketing”: One that cherishes not only academic achievement but also humane values. The college will have to deliver on that promise, though, if it wants people to buy it.