October 3, 2003

'The Cornell Image: A Brand in Crisis'?

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The Committee on Improving Cornell’s Image, headed by Peter S. Cohl ’04, released a report yesterday which examines Cornell’s reputation as a university and provides suggestions for strengthening its public image. The report, which was presented at last night’s Student Assembly meeting, takes a critical look at the way Cornell presents itself to both potential students and college ranking services.

Entitled “The Cornell Image: A Brand in Crisis,” Cohl’s 30-page report outlines an extensive plan for improving Cornell’s educational status as well as increasing its position in the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings, where it is currently tied for 14th place.

“Rankings do matter,” Cohl said. “To improve our standing in the rankings and enhance our viability as a university, we need to look at [the] issues which shape the rankings.”

Foremost among these issues, the report indicates, is Cornell’s class size, a factor which Cohl says accounts for 8 percent of a school’s score under the current rating system. Cornell ranks last among the top 25 universities in percentage of classes with less than 20 students and ranks 823rd out of 827 total universities in terms of classes with under 50 students, according to the report. Cornell’s undergraduate population is also nearly double the size of similarly ranked institutions, a figure which dampens the score of alumni contributions in the ratings.

The first step, according to Cohl, is the hiring of more professors to better accommodate Cornell’s growing numbers of students.

“I think that it will not only help us in the rankings, but it will increase both faculty satisfaction, student satisfaction and create a better learning environment. That’s what we’re here for,” Cohl said.

Cohl said he spent over 300 hours researching data on Cornell’s public image, from its number of mentions in the New York Times to the style of hats at the Cornell Store.

“Cornell’s consumers are sophisticated, choosy and hold high expectations,” he said. “We need to market better.”

The report also takes aim at Cornell’s website, contending that its unprofessional look and lack of information makes it appear, according to Cohl, “like a party school in Texas.” Additionally, he urged a return to Cornell’s traditional shield crest logo, instead of the simpler current logo, which consists of a square containing the name Cornell.

“The Big Red Box might be an adequate logo for J.C. Penney, from which it was likely adapted — but, it is not an enticing visual for those interested in studying … at an Ivy League University,” the report stated.

Cohl also accused Cornell of failing to adequately publicize the achievements of its graduates and not doing enough to promote its connection to such headline-grabbers as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz ’65 and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54. Cohl’s research indicates that the number of articles with references to Cornell that have appeared in the New York Times has decreased from 827 between 1981 and 1983 to 441 between 2001 and 2003.

To cap off the image renovation, Cohl suggested discarding Cornell’s current slogan of “Elite. Not Elitist” in favor of a more challenging replacement. Among the suggestions were “Cornell demands excellence” and “If you can get through Cornell — you can get through anything.” The slogan, although not official, is used on some University promotional materials including a poster in the financial aid office.

S.A. members were generally pleased with the contents of the report.

“I’m very excited that the S.A. has a committee dealing with Cornell’s image,” said S.A. president Nick Linder ’05. “I think it’s important that students say we feel that this is important, that the administration ought to make this a priority.”

The Committee on Improving Cornell’s Image has recently worked with the Cornell Store in creating an “old-school” marketing initiative, a collaboration Cohl says has resulted in a 50-percent increase in hat sales over the past year.

“We’re trying to build the Ivy brand into the Cornell Store,” Cohl said. “One of the reasons merchandising is so important is that … the best salespeople are the students themselves.”

After the meeting, Cohl pulled aside a passing student in the Straight lobby, Ash Walter ’06, sporting one of the Image Committee’s new designs. Cohl asked him what he thought of the new look.

“I kind of like the old-school look of it, it’s very simple,” Walter said, referring to the red “C” in the center of his blue sweatshirt. “It’s very to the point.”

Cohl, an adult student who recently moved to Ithaca from the West Coast, plans to continue working with the administration in implementing his suggestions on Cornell’s image.

Archived article by Jeff Sickelco