Less than a decade ago, Professor Jan Diskin-Zimmerman, fondly known as Dini around Stony Brook University, met with her daughter, Catie, and the high-school guidance counselor. They went through the list of schools for Catie to apply to, but one specific college, surprisingly, had not been mentioned. So Diskin-Zimmerman, never one to keep quiet, made the suggestion. “I said, ‘How about Stony Brook?’ and the guidance counselor said, ‘Ugh. No. You don’t want to go there. You might as well go to Suffolk County Community College.’”
Stony Brook University (SBU) has struggled to become, as some called it in the past, “The Berkeley of the East,” and it has tried to separate itself academically from lesser known public colleges and universities.
SBU recently turned to professionals from SimpsonScarborough, a higher education marketing and communications company whose clients include American University in Washington D.C., Syracuse University and the University of California system, along with more than a hundred other institutions across the country to help solidify the university’s shaky and often inconsistent image.
There were a slew of logos. “There was the one that looked like sperm running uphill and then the one that looked like baby blocks,” said Zimmerman, who has worked at SBU for 16 years. Now the logo is a flat red shield with white rays, borrowing imagery from more historic emblems and simplicity from Silicon Valley start-ups.
The earliest logo, not sperm but rather “stones in the brook,” survived through several periods of university turmoil. In the early days, “most of the publicity was not favorable,” said SBU professor Joel Rosenthal, author of the book From the Ground Up: A History of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “The university was mostly content to lay low in the sense that there was a lot of town-gown hostility,” said Rosenthal referring to “Operation Stony Brook,” the 1968 drug raid that led to the arrest of 29 students and a new nickname for SBU: the drug store.
Today the image of the university rests mostly with one man: Nicholas Scibetta, the Vice President for Communications. Scibetta joined SBU in late January of this year and, according to President Samuel Stanley Jr.’s announcement, Scibetta is responsible for SBU’s “overarching communications, brand strategy and visual identity.” Scibetta and Dexter Bailey, Senior Vice President for University Advancement, declined to comment on the branding initiative.
“They’re trying to move away from that word, branding, and to the phrase ‘image enhancement,’” said Dr. Kathleen Monahan, Senate Secretary and Treasurer. Monahan left an afternoon meeting on April 15 in the Frank Melville Library where SimpsonScarborough had made a presentation entitled “Stony Brook University Advancing the Image and Identity.” A Press reporter attempting to cover the meeting was asked to leave. “They’re looking at a lot of different populations,” said Monahan.
SimpsonScarborough polled prospective students and local businesses on their perceptions of SBU. They polled peer institutions and alumni. They polled guidance counselors, the ones who can either steer students towards or away from the school, just as the one did with Diskin-Zimmerman’s daughter, who ultimately did not attend SBU.
Presenters threw out possible focus words: smart, critical, curious, driven, friendly, fun, untethered, do-er and excited, according to a tenured professor who attended the meeting but did not want to be named due to the private nature of the presentation. SimpsonScarborough chose four points of differential aspects of SBU that make it stand out from similar schools, including: value, diversity, momentum and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
According to the professor, presenters also introduced a phrase: “Stony Brook University unites an imaginative community in relentless pursuit of tomorrow’s big idea.”
This is not necessarily SBU’s new slogan. “They’re putting out some ideas,” said Margaret Schedel, University Senate President of the School of Arts and Sciences. It’s still in a “consultative phase,” said Schedel. Funding for SimpsonScarborough was provided by an anonymous donor to the Stony Brook Foundation.
SBU is not the first, and it certainly won’t be the last, institution for higher education to hire a company like SimpsonScarborough. “I think President Stanley is just getting around to seeing the problems he’s inherited,” said Diskin-Zimmerman. State schools have seen a large amount of funding reduction, and there’s increased competition to attract the best students, faculty and donors, according to University Media Relations Officer Lauren Sheprow. “Our brand is strong. We know it is,” said Sheprow, who cited Stanley’s phrase “access to excellence.”
Past presidents had their own phrases, too. Shirley Strum Kenny, University President prior to Stanley, often said the university had come “so far, so fast.” (SimpsonScarborough has also incorporated this message by focusing on the school’s momentum.)
She says her most important goal was getting the school into the Association of American Universities, which is comprised of the top 62 research universities in the United States and Canada. The goal, reached during Kenny’s tenure, is what she called a “turning point in the life of the campus.”
Yet Kenny felt that building community loyalty stretched beyond rankings. “In the climb to national and international research greatness, undergraduate life was a kind of [an] afterthought,” said Kenny. Under Kenny, SBU went from Division III athletics to Division I. The tradition of Red Fridays began, “Wolfie” was born and so was the marching band. “That silly red really created a sense of community,” said Diskin-Zimmerman.
In early 2014, according to Sheprow, SBU began “looking broadly at brand identity” and building on the strengths of the university. It’s about “brand value” said Sheprow.
SBU is just one of a growing number of institutions looking to sell itself in a climate where public funding has been reduced and reliance on private money is growing. “I assume we are doing what everyone else is doing; we are rarely leaders or innovative but we do go along with the pack of big schools,” said Rosenthal.
For Kenny, the notion of a university as a brand is offensive. “As you can see, I was far more involved in improving the campus and campus life than in questioning of how to sell it,” she said.