I have a confession to make: I never wanted to go to Occidental. In fact, I had never even heard of the school until my college counselor told me I needed to add another safety school to my list and handed me a pamphlet. In her judgment, Occidental perfectly bridged the gap between the amalgam of small liberal arts colleges and Southern California schools I had so far collected.
“Occidental?” my dad asked. “That school with the sexual assault problem?”
Call it karma for my pretentiousness — after the over-glorified melodrama that was college acceptance season in New York City, Occidental ended up being the best option available to me. Strung-out and washed-up, I accepted my place, hoping for the best from a school about which I knew the least.
Three years later, Occidental prevails as the school I had never known I’d always wanted.
But for as often as I sing my gratitude for the institution, the fact of the matter is that I came here inadvertently. In my elite educational pocket of the Northeast, “Occidental” still more frequently brings to mind teeth than anything having to do with the West Coast, let alone our diminutive liberal arts school. The school’s distinction on the West Coast proved to be even more pathetic, where it seems to sit lost in the shadows of California’s well known — and massive — public and private institutions. Perhaps this is because historically, college marketing focused on communication and internal announcements. But as the economy of higher education became more competitive and demanded more active and comprehensive promotion, Occidental’s marketing department remained the same.
The students, faculty, staff, alumni, board and community members of Occidental College deserve a comprehensive marketing overhaul. We shouldn’t have to explain that, “No, it’s not a dental school, and yes, we did have a sexual assault scandal, but so did every other college. It’s a small liberal arts school in Southern California and it is in fact a good school despite the fact that you’ve never heard of it” every time we introduce ourselves to a friend, family member, colleague or employer. We’ve all worked too hard.
Occidental deserves name recognition and prestige; and in our growing economy where colleges and universities are becoming more and more competitive, there is increasing financial pressure on small schools — especially liberal arts colleges — to prove their worth when stacked against better-endowed, pre-professional, larger schools, according to Associate Vice President of Marketing and Communications Marty Sharkey. Even I, as thankful as I am for my experience here and as proudly as I tout the liberal arts, often have trouble justifying putting a $66,000 price tag on learning “how to think.” A comprehensive marketing strategy, in generating an authentic yet straightforward and sellable narrative for the school, would lift some of that burden off of individuals. The challenge and importance of crafting this narrative lies in forcing the community to reflect on and articulate what brought them here and why they decided to stay at a such a pricey liberal arts school; whether they are students or parents paying the high cost, or professors or administrators condoning (and realistically, raising) it.
A genuine effort to market this school, the task Sharkey was hired to take on last year, will pull the college’s mission from the text of our website and the backs of our ID cards into real life and force us to thoughtfully articulate its actual manifestation in day-to-day life at Occidental. The primary purpose of this strategy would be to communicate Occidental’s story with the larger collegiate community, but it would also encourage internal, cross-disciplinary and intergenerational discussion of the larger identity Occidental wants to own and demand a consensus on what exactly we want that identity to look like.
But it seems not everyone on campus agrees. While most of the community seems to be on board with Sharkey’s initiative, some have argued that marketing is a business tool that is antithetical to the nature and purpose of a college, and that the attempt to present a cohesive narrative of the “Occidental experience” is fundamentally impossible in that it inherently reduces diverse experiences of community members.
While a critical examination of everything to which the administration allocates intensive resources is paramount, this critique in particular fails to integrate ideology with economic reality. In an ideal, Platonic or maybe even Marxist world, the level of dedication to the purpose of college — to educate citizens, grow leaders and promote democracy by nurturing active citizenship — might be all a college community needs to worry about to consider itself successful. But we live in a capitalist society, so we must actively compete if we want to see this school thrive.
Though important to pre-planning discussions, the charge that creating a unified narrative would erase the experiences of Occidental students is misguided and seemingly more rooted in deep-seated trust issues with the administration than with the initiative itself. Rather than trying to reduce the Occidental experience down to one narrative or tagline, Sharkey emphasizes that his goal is to highlight the pillars of the Occidental experience, to create the scaffolding for multiple, if not dozens, of different narratives to stand on and bring the school to life.
When it comes down to it, many complaints made about this school could be answered at least in part by a good marketing strategy. Greater awareness of the existence of Occidental would mean a larger number of applicants. This would translate into more competition that would create a higher caliber student body, which could lead to a better reputation and increased funding. Greater funding means better and more staff, faculty and administrators. It means more financial aid and diversity. It means once-overworked administrators might finally have the time to listen to and focus on student concerns (not that they shouldn’t be prioritizing them now, but it will logistically hasten the process, and provide incentive for proactive rather than reactive responses). More funding could go to diversity initiatives, air conditioning in dorms, club athletic teams, expanded Emmons hours and every other complaint students and faculty have heard and made time and time again.
Sometimes, when reflecting on the fact that my college counselor sold Occidental to me as a safety school at the last second of the college process, I return to the present moment disoriented and disbelieving, and frankly a little bit disgusted. At 17, I knew I wanted a small school in warm weather that was far from home, but not much more than that. I needed the school to be sold to me. One of my best friends, who actually transferred to the University of Pennsylvania last year, put it perfectly: Occidental, no matter how great, sells itself as a B school.
Hopefully, with the momentum Sharkey is building with this new marketing strategy, Occidental will rise to the occasion.