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Communications at the University of Rochester: A Fresh Approach

August 30, 2005

Few issues were more stressed in the Presidential Search that led to my hiring than the need to increase the visibility of the University of Rochester. In a thoughtful Presidential Search White Paper, National Recognition was listed as the second (behind Revenue Development) most visible task for the incoming President. As the White Paper explained: "While the University is ranked within the top institutions of its kind in the nation, its visibility has not matched its achievements. Its outstanding research faculty, creative curricula, and excellence in many fields offer the opportunity to bring its national prominence to a higher position among tier-one research institutions."

Before I began officially on July 1, I asked M. Fredric ("Fred") Volkmann to visit the University and prepare an Evaluation Report on University, school and program public relations. Fred Volkmann was my colleague at Washington University where he has long been Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs. He is considered a national leader in this field and has conducted similar reviews at close to 70 universities and colleges, including Brown, University of California campuses, and the University of Chicago. He visited Rochester on June 13-15, 2005 and based his Report to me on interviews with 50 academic leaders, public relations senior employees, and Board members as well as a broad review of hard copy and internet materials generally used within the past year to communicate with the news media, alumni, parents, donors, community, faculty, staff, students, prospective students, patients, and the general public.

The Volkmann Report in general affirms the view of the Presidential White Paper. As the Report states in an introductory paragraph:

This evaluator has conducted nearly 70 reviews of university and college public relations programs over the past quarter century, and has seen many types of public relations challenges—but never an institution of this size with such a challenging and decentralized approach to defining what and who it is locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. This is not necessarily the fault of just public relations programs, but rather the result of top-down administrative decisions dating back many years to a time when universities were not expected to speak cohesively or with a focused marketing message. There is no question the institution requires a more aggressive and embracing approach to promoting itself. Simply stated in today's parlance—the University of Rochester has not "branded" itself effectively, cohesively, and consistently.

The Volkmann Report highlighted several points in its analysis, including that little or no attitudinal or market opinion research apparently has been conducted (with the exception of the hospitals); the University is "an institution that desperately needs to build a stronger internal cohesiveness and sense of family;" news media initiatives show insufficient national emphasis; a need for internal communications to be communicated more frequently and with stronger content; Rochester Review should play a stronger role in the University's communications efforts; "the University identity system is outmoded and ineffective;" and there is little consistency in the University's identity on printed matter, Web sites, and news releases.

The Report concluded with fifteen categories of specific recommendations:

  1. Create a New Position of Vice President for Public Affairs
  2. Reorganize Rochester's Public Relations, Marketing, Communications, and Promotional Efforts under the Management or Oversight of a New Office of Public Affairs
  3. Establish a Public Affairs Council
  4. Establish a Proactive, Priority-Setting, Strategic Planning Process for Public Affairs
  5. Establish an Internal Communications Council
  6. Install a Web Content Management System for Public Relations, and Perhaps the Entire Institution
  7. Adapt Currents Digest to Include Daily News
  8. Identify Target Cities for News Media Attention
  9. Establish Minimum Expectations for News Productivity
  10. Rochester Needs to Analyze the Attitudes of Its Key Audiences
  11. Initiate a University-Wide Identity and Branding Process
  12. Consider a News Media Story Placement Firm
  13. Develop a Digital Broadcast Studio
  14. Initiate a Development Communications Office
  15. Adopt More Effective Operating and Management Tactics and Strategies

Collectively these recommendations outline a comprehensive new approach for Communications at the University of Rochester. Without subscribing to specific recommendations at this time, I believe this is an effort that is necessary and important for our University. We are one University. Although we are organized in six schools and affiliated programs and value decentralization, we are all part of the University of Rochester. We have much of which to be proud at our University. But, to put it simply, we can do a better job communicating our accomplishments and our identity.

I am today announcing that I have asked Doug Phillips, Senior Vice President for Institutional Resources, to chair a Search Committee to identify candidates for the new position of Vice President for Communications. The Committee includes representatives from each school and the two co-chairs of the Faculty Senate. Specifically the members of the Committee are:

Nick Bigelow
Professor of Physics & Astronomy

Laura Brophy
Director of Development, Warner School

Holli Budd 
Executive Director Alumni Relations and Development
Simon Graduate School of Business Admin

Teri D'Agostino 
Director Public Relations & Communication
University of Rochester Medical Center

Lynne Davidson
Deputy To The President

Gerald Gamm
Associate Professor of Political Science

William Scott Green 
Dean, The College / Professor Religion & Classics

Grant Holcomb 
The Mary W. and Donald R. Clark Director—Memorial Art Gallery

Ron Paprocki 
Senior VP, Admin & Finance; Chief Financial Officer

Susan Robertson
Associate Director, Communications & Development
Communications, Eastman School of Music

Peter Robinson
Vice President & COO, Medical Center & Strong Health

Jim Thompson
Senior VP & Chief Advancement Officer

In addition, an Advisory Committee of the University Board of Trustees will interview each final candidate. This Committee will be chaired by Trustee Alan F. Hilfiker and also include Myra Gelband, Joseph P. Mack, and G. Robert Witmer, Jr. The search will be assisted by Judith Ward of Academic Search Consultation Service, located in Washington, D.C. (additional information on the search firm is available at

I have deliberately renamed the Office of Communications in place of the earlier term Office of Public Affairs to signal that this is intended to be a fresh start. The Office of Communications will address University wide internal and external communications and coexist with the University's divisional programs.

What I am announcing today is not a criticism of the past, but a new approach. It is based on a different vision than has been held in the past of what a leading 21st century university requires. I do believe that the Office will need new leadership to effectively demonstrate my commitment to change.

Fred Volkmann stressed to me how talented the Public Relations professionals are at this University. I agree with him. I have been personally impressed by their work during my initial weeks on the job.

Robert Kraus will remain as leader of the Office of Communications until a new Vice President is in place. At that time, Robert has agreed to take on an important new assignment working with Jim Thompson, our new Senior Vice President and Chief Advancement Officer, in building a new communications program for the central advancement office.

Most of the recommendations of the Volkmann Report will be considered only after the new Vice President has been selected. I believe that the new Vice President should play a significant role in these discussions. But it is also important to underline that change in this area will be the consequence of University wide conversation and collaboration. I look forward to working with the new Vice President and University leaders on implementation of the new approach to Communications.

I have made or will make copies of the Volkmann Report available to senior leaders of the University, the Board of Trustees, the Search Committee for the Vice President for Communications, and candidates for the new Vice Presidency. I expressly asked Fred Volkmann to prepare a confidential report which would be candid and, when appropriate, critical. He did so on the understanding that the Report was being prepared solely for the use of a small group of University leaders. I do not intend to circulate the document more generally.

Early in the Report, Volkmann wrote: "[A] common misunderstanding of public relations is that it creates an image for the institution rather than serves as a [concave] mirror that focuses on what already exists." Our ultimate objective is to better communicate the achievements of our great faculty, outstanding programs, and wonderful students at the University of Rochester. Today we begin the first steps in what will be a multi-year process of implementation.