Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Getting out the vote

This week is Challenge Week in my department.  It's a week of presentations and discussions around a common theme.  For the first time this year, the theme was brainstormed by seniors last spring; they chose corruption in government.  And for the first time this year, the focus was not on national speakers that cost five figures to bring in, but local talent: a professor from Hendrix, a current student, and an alumnus currently working for democratic development in Macedonia.

Because our previous experience has been mounting large-scale events that cover multiple out-of-town speakers, large budgets, and time periods that have extended over two weeks in recent iterations, we didn't really know what to expect in terms of an audience for this time around.  Here are the lessons I've learned so far.

  • When you do huge events, you change the audience from an internal to an external one. The focus then becomes doing publicity in the media and lining up partners in the community or other institutions to turn out an audience.
  • Because of this emphasis, the necessity to get your own students to come is reduced; they are no longer the primary audience, because by themselves they are not enough to justify the expense and scale of the event.
  • This leads to a strategic mismatch, if your institutional goals are centered on your students rather than on the community.
  • By scaling down, the audience of the event is correspondingly redefined.  Now there isn't a draw for the general public (no big names), nor the imperative to make multiple partnerships that can deliver segments of the eventual audience.
  • Your audience becomes the student body, then -- a result aligned both to the expenditure of resources and likely strategic goals of the organization.
  • Because you need the student body to turn out for the events, the pressure increases to offer curricular incentives for their attendance.  Incentives are not mandated, and therefore not as frequently offered, when the primary audience is external.
  • Incentives, not surprisingly, tend to increase attendance in the student population.
The result is the audiences we've seen at the first two events of the week: overflow student participation. And that's exactly what we should want for this reconfigured Challenge Week.  With limited resources, it makes strategic sense to pursue initiatives aimed at the students, which creates a momentum to do what it takes to make sure the students are reached.  If we can resist the temptation to believe our job is to educate the whole campus, city, or region, and work on educating our students, whaddya know -- we actually end up with structures that direct the education their way and vice versa.

No comments: