VP search: Brennan stresses digital presence, preparedness efforts


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While the University of Iowa and the State University of New York-Buffalo stand nearly 750 miles apart, the two face six similar threats.

Just ask Joseph Brennan.

The current associate vice president for university communications at SUNY-Buffalo is one of three finalists vying for a new role as the UI’s vice president for Strategic Communication.

A “bad” economy, loss of trust, changing demographics, increased competition in the higher-education arena, unsustainable financial models on a national scale, and in particular, new technological waves for interpersonal communication are collectively putting the idea of a true college education at risk, Brennan said.

And in almost every state, colleges see fewer traditional-age students walk through their halls and across their lawns. We’ll have to wait until 2035 for those numbers to return to a sense of normalcy, he said.

Refuting what he called the all-too-common concept of a college graduate working as a coffee-shop barista straddled with thousands of dollars in student debt, Brennan said it’s time the nation’s schools return to the top of global academia standards.

To do that at the UI, he said, may take some notes of some unorthodox approaches undertaken at Buffalo.

“We’re living in an age of partisan skepticism, gridlock in Washington … and angry bloggers,” he said.

The next vice president position, Brennan said, needs to acknowledge bad news — from social scandals to natural disasters — head on, before someone else does.

“It’s very smart to tell your own bad news,” he said. “Our goal of issue management is not to sweep things under the rug.”

Among his goals outlined under the new role include establishing greater intra-state relationships with Iowans and the UI, expanding digital presence across new social-media platforms such as Instagram, and Vine as well as traditional print student recruitment marketing, and expanding crisis management programs on campus.

Vice President for Student Life Tom Rocklin, a co-head of the search committee, said Brennan’s broad experience has created a lot to think about.

Jean Florman, the director of the UI Center for Teaching, liked Brennan’s line-down leadership approach, in which all employees have a say in final decisions, as well as a “looking to the horizon” notion of preventing campus disasters before they arise.

So what challenges does the new, soon-to-be-named candidate face?

To Florman, it’s enhancing relationships between not just the UI and Iowa City but surrounding communities, developing a set of internal brands beyond the Iowa Hawkeye football program, and nationally recognized Writers’ Workshop and University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

With the retiring of the UI FYI News for Faculty and Staff online platform, Florman said, there is a true lack of internal connectivity.

“I just don’t think we’ve had that conversation in a while,” she said.

In his July 11 visit, Jeff Iseminger, the interim vice president for university advancement and marketing at Minnesota State University-Mankato, stressed the importance of the UI’s self-branding efforts, noting that the institution could learn from Apple’s mentality.

A third and final candidate is set to visit campus Wednesday; he or she will be named today.

The vice president reports directly to UI President Sally Mason and serves as the “chief communication officer responsible for conveying, internally and externally, the university’s mission, vision, and values,” according to the job description.

Mark Braun, Mason’s chief of staff, is serving as the vice president on an interim basis; he will return to his original role when a new vice president is chosen.

The upside to the American higher-education system, according to Brennan? Simply put, people still love to go to college.

“Obviously, we see this [spirit] on game day, but we also see this on commencement day,” he said.

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