Down the long arrivals corridor at Philadelphia International Airport - past the security checkpoint, leading to the baggage claim - a line of bright signs and advertisements welcomes just-landed visitors to the City of Brotherly Love. One sign invites tourists to visit Holt's Cigar Shop on Walnut Street. Another welcomes visiting Amway conventioneers; still another advertises a hotel shuttle service. But one billboard looks particularly out-of-place amidst these first Philadelphia images. It doesn't display the brand of a rental car company, hotel or even directions to the taxi stand or SEPTA station. No, this billboard advertises something much more significant - a Penn education. "Get your Executive MBA at the Wharton School," the sign reads, with the business school's independent logo emblazoned bright for all passersby to see. The airport scene is hardly unique. Drivers on the Schuylkill Expressway see billboards espousing the high rankings of the Penn Health System. Area commuters can read about getting a College of General Studies education while they pass through 30th Street Station or sit in a city bus. And that Wharton MBA ad? It's recently found its way off of billboards, and into national publications like BusinessWeek. As the University's profile has grown over the last decade, so too, it appears, has its marketing potential. And so, what was once Benjamin Franklin's humble academy has become a powerful brand name. Like Coca-Cola and McDonald's, Penn is transferring its operational (read: academic) strength into the business of selling itself - to potential students, donors and even the people who already call this place home. Such practices, of course, are neither new nor unique in higher education. Universities and colleges commonly advertise their revenue-generating functions - such as health systems - and promote programs like adult education to draw support and income from their local communities. But widespread, high-quality academic commercialism is a relatively new institution. And in that enterprise, Penn is quite obviously blazing the trail. Case in point: the Wharton School's newest intercontinental venture, Wharton West. Wharton leaders say that the San Francisco arm of the business school will "serve various constituencies" who could benefit from an office on the West Coast. They say it provides students with the flexibility to pursue internships, and opens up a new market in which the school may pursue potential executive students. That may very well be true. But the primary motive behind the California branch of the University likely has more to do with expanding the Wharton name than opening up internship opportunities. The brand name, after all, is a Wharton specialty. No other school at Penn commands such independent admiration. No other school has such an identifiable logo. And no other school has made as many strides to adapt its management structure to the cutting-edge lessons on external partnerships and brand name recognition being taught in its classrooms. But one question still remains, both for Wharton and the larger University that oversees it: Is the commercialism of quality higher education a dangerous trend? If advancing the Penn name and logo works, then higher revenues and expanded resources will almost certainly serve to benefit the next generation of students. But the flip-side is dangerous. An overzealous or careless leveraging of the name may backfire, dragging those Wharton billboards - and the reputation of the University - down into the territory of the correspondence schools and commuter colleges that beg for students on late-night commercials. And that would be tragic. So far, it seems that the "Corporate Penn" is safe. Years of interaction with donors and alumni have proved that some of the best academic initiatives may actually start out in the boardroom. You may be reading this column, after all, while relaxing in Lehman [Brothers] Quad. And don't forget that Perelman Quadrangle was once meant to be the Revlon Center. Those are the success stories. The potential failures, though, could almost certainly be realized if administrators move too quickly to adapt to a marketing campaign that has little predictable direction. That's a risk that this University - which has overcome so much in the past few years to develop its academic standing - must be mindful of as it continues its quest to improve. And it's a risk that students must be mindful of, as their alma mater's reputation continues to say a lot about their own background and education.Comments powered by Disqus
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