Changes at Southeast to focus on message

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Responding to calls for Southeast Missouri State University to better brand itself, communicate its mission and emerge from its status as a "hidden jewel," university officials are planning one of the largest administration restructurings in the past decade.

Marketing and communication staff will move to the alumni center, where they will fall under the direction of Wayne Smith, the vice president of university advancement. Smith's supervision duties will more than triple.

Administrators hope the move will create a better "synergy" between the offices of university relations and advancement so a consistent message can be delivered.

"Advancement in the past has been doing a lot of advertising, Web, and special events for alumni and donors, and over here in university relations we have been doing a lot of those things for perspective students. This really puts all those people under one roof," said Diane Sides, director of university relations.

What message the team will deliver is still being developed, Sides said. A consultant has been hired to interview students, businesses, and alumni in St. Louis to determine their current views of Southeast. University staff are doing the same thing locally.

The goal is to become "the best public institution in the Midwest," but currently there are "so many great messages to tell" everyone is telling a different one, Sides said.

"There are several messages out there. I think 'Experience Southeast, Experience Success' is one we've been using, but several messages are possible," said university president Dr. Ken Dobbins.

Despite the university's concern with marketing, their message appears to be reaching students. This past year, enrollment reached an all-time high of 10,665, a 25 percent increase over 10 years ago. Some officials want more.

"The branding, it is important for us. Yes, our enrollment is up, but we believe it can be even higher," Dobbins said.

Enrollment managers, however, have expressed concerns about setting lofty goals. When strategic planning discussions first began in November, Dr. Dennis Holt warned board of regents members that growth for growth's sake is not healthy.

Responding to a suggestion that Southeast strive to reach 15,000 students by 2013, the vice president of administration and enrollment management said, "Even if we could get there, I don't think it's advisable."

Dr. Debbie Below, director of admissions and enrollment management at Southeast, said aims to increase Southeast's presence now are meant to offset a potential drop in future students. Projections show the number of high school graduates in Missouri dropping by about five percent by 2011. The decline is being attributed to a natural population change.

The organizational change at Southeast is one of the first tangible changes to come out of the university's strategic planning process, meant to outline the goals for the university over the next three to five years. Other needs identified relate to funding, infrastructure, human capital, academics and the "student experience."

The core makeup of the student body will not change with the increased or varied marketing efforts, Below said. "The university is committed to serve who we presently serve. First and foremost is the Southeast Missouri region, then St. Louis and Illinois," she said. "Beyond that, we can reach across the region, nationally and internationally."

Dobbins said marketing or branding is meant to affect more than enrollment. Economic development in the region and job placement of graduates depends on perceptions of the university, he said.

"We want to make sure people understand we have quality programs and we want employers to want to hire our students," he said. "There are a lot of people in St. Louis that don't know about us."

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