Failure to Communicate: Learnings from the Ongoing Cooper Union Battle

A few weeks ago, the Trustees of famed college Cooper Union voted to begin charging tuition in the 2014 school year. To an outsider, the decision might look like a no-brainer. The school is desperate for cash to keep its doors open, and who could make a fuss about a college charging tuition? That’s what they all do, right?

Well no, actually. In fact, Cooper Union has never charged tuition. For more than 150 years, Cooper has weathered every financial storm to remain free of charge for every single one of its students. The school’s founder, Peter Cooper, believed education should be “as free as air and water”, and the commitment to  “free education for all” is the college’s most distinguishing feature and an abiding source of pride for students and alumni.

It’s not surprising the change wasn’t taken lightly. Immediately after the announcement, students began protest efforts, including painting the entire lobby of one of the school’s buildings black and peacefully occupying the president’s office. And like-minded institutions around the globe are starting to stand in solidarity with the protesters.

After three weeks, there is no sign that this issue is dying down; in fact the hostility seems to be escalating, with the protesters demanding the resignation of president Jamshed Bharucha.

So what did the board and administration do wrong? Their decision reflects a failure to fully grasp the attributes that were most valued by their constituents.

Despite sophisticated research tools and well-staffed public affairs departments, we continue to see a rash of organizations that suffer from self-inflicted wounds to their brands.

If UC students staged a successful revolt over a logo, and UVA did the same over the fate of one president, how is it possible that Cooper Union is caught by surprise by the angry reaction to plans that will cost students tens of thousands of dollars and violate the school’s most fundamental values? What we have here is a failure to communicate.

What enlightened marketers need to understand about brands and the organizations they represent, is that before you plan for change, you must understand what your core audience values most. If you don’t, those same people will become your most vocal, even vicious, critics.

When we see groups of people become outraged critics, like the students and alumni of Cooper Union, we should understand that dissent is more valuable than indifference. Criticism may be hard to take, but it often comes from the audiences that care the most.

Fortunately, all of us have the power to avoid these disasters. All it takes is rethinking the responsibilities of our jobs  as marketers. Good communication starts with listening. Seeking honest input, as often as possible, is the secret recipe behind every great communicator and every great leader.

So what should the leadership of Cooper Union do now to turn the tide from criticism to cooperation? Learn from examples like New Coke, JC Penney, Netflix, UVA and hundreds of others. Swallow your pride, suspend your current plan and start listening.

And as an alumnus of Cooper Union, I hope they do it fast, before one of our nation’s most respected educational institutions collapses under the weight of poorly informed decisions.

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