Colleges push professors into media spotlight

For Robert Thompson, being a professor at Syracuse University means teaching, researching. and averaging 30 interviews per week with reporters.

For John Allen Williams, the scholar's life means keeping a jacket and tie in his Loyola University Chicago office at all times, just in case television news crews need a quick quote.

Such is the life for scholars in today's competitive environment among colleges and universities. As schools vie to attract top students, top faculty, and top-dollar gifts, they count on their bookish professors to leave the library and enter the studio, where their insights on the day's news might help put their institutions on the map.

"It lends a certain credibility when they see you on television," says Mr. Williams, an expert in military affairs. "It may boost student enrollment in my courses."

For schools aspiring to enhance their reputations, the task of positioning faculty for a "media hit" has become big business. To get their professors into reporters' Palm Pilots, 624 colleges and universities pay between $500 and $900 each per year to be listed with ProfNet, a private database. Some go further by paying thousands to private firms whose sole mission is to get professors quoted in the press.

Spokespeople in higher education tend to agree that the time, effort, and money they invest to get professors quoted in news stories are priceless.

Readers and viewers "must be thinking, 'Those folks at SLU must know their stuff, otherwise those folks at major media outlets wouldn't be calling them,' " says Clayton Berry, spokesman for St. Louis University, which has doubled its number of citations in the media over the past two years. "It places us among those other elite institutions to be quoted in an article along with the Brookings Institution and others with international reputations."

Not everyone is convinced that the costs, in terms of dollars and professors' time, are worth it. Too many schools wantonly pursue wide media exposure when they'd be better off targeting a particular regional audience, says John Ross, a Virginia media- strategy consultant for institutions of higher education.

"More and more schools are seeing that the national coverage is not really a panacea," says Mr. Ross. "We get these national clips and send them to the board of trustees and they say, 'That's great.' But so what? Where does it get you? Money is tight, so you really need a measurable payoff.... Is it worth spending $20,000 or $40,000 for those occasional mentions in The New York Times? In most cases, I doubt it."

Despite doubts, however, schools across the board are gearing up to maximize their experts' exposure. Ohio University recently purchased a satellite truck in part so professors can do live television interviews on site within minutes of a request. Loyola Marymount University launched a presidential election 2004 website this year to steer press coverage toward its political scientists. And Syracuse University, where Mr. Thompson directs the Center for the Study of Popular Television, will this fall begin training faculty members on how to interview effectively with the media.

For scholars, press interviews can bring fringe benefits or advance a career. Although news clips never substitute for publishing in scholarly journals, they can help the teaching reputation of a tenure-seeking professor who consistently attracts students drawn to a celebrity. Beyond that, Williams says, comes the satisfaction of knowing, "I can reach a million people, and I love that." He admits, "There's maybe an ego satisfaction involved."

Yet just as administrations must evaluate the costs of courting coverage, so also must professors. A scholar who knows he or she will be on TV one night, Williams says, might spend an entire afternoon preparing at the expense of more scholarly endeavors.

Or, as Prof. Stephen Kent of the University of Alberta points out, a few comments in the press can create long-term trouble with colleagues.

What's more, professors who comment on controversial local issues involving their universities can find themselves at odds with the very administrations that encouraged them to do interviews. To mitigate this problem, some institutions have instructed scholars to limit their comments to their areas of expertise, but those policies are producing protest.

"As a faculty member, you're an officer of the institution. You're not just an assembly-line worker," says Jonathan Knight, director of the American Association of University Professors' program in academic freedom and tenure. "An effort to stop faculty members from commenting on issues of concern to their communities would be a direct assault on academic freedom."

With all the pitfalls and distractions in mind, some professors ask university officials to keep reporters away. Some, Williams says, are inherently wary that speaking in sound bites might oversimplify what their research shows.

But over time, that wariness is fading, as professors become willing to be part of the institutional marketing machine - and maybe gain a little fame in the process.

"There was a greater sense 30 years ago that academic institutions were so very different from business enterprises," says John Lippencott, interim president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. "Now there's more understanding that everybody at the institutions plays a role in presenting the school to students, parents, and the public."

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