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Talking Points


Name: Julie A. Peterson

Title: Since July 1, Chicago’s vice president for communications

Degrees: AB’84, MBA’89, both Indiana University

Previous posts: University of Michigan, 1994–2007: from director of news and information to interim VP for communications; Indiana University, 1985–94: from staff writer to managing editor in the news bureau

Michigan’s Supreme case: I led the communications effort for Michigan’s affirmative-action lawsuits for seven years, and I found it to be the most rewarding experience of my professional career so far. I believe in the value of diversity and the importance of keeping our doors open to students from all walks of life, so my personal commitment to the issues we were fighting for was strong. From the experience I learned the value of a comprehensive, disciplined communication plan pursued steadily over a long period of time. I also learned the importance of leading from our values.

I believe we changed the national debate about affirmative action in this country, and we did it with a small staff and no big expenditures on PR consulting firms. We stuck to our core messages through both victories and setbacks and through three different  university presidents. I think we convinced many people that having a diverse learning community is a valuable and principled goal, even if they disagreed with our specific policies.

Public vs. private schools: Every university has a unique culture and history. I found Michigan to be different from Indiana University, and the University of Chicago is different from Michigan. It will be a delight to get to know a new institution and form a new set of relationships with smart, creative people who are dedicated to their work. I have much to learn about the University.

Top priorities at Chicago: To get to know the University as quickly as I can, to un--derstand its unique strengths, priorities, and important constituents; and to build a strong communications organization that can support the University’s academic priorities. I need to recruit people who can understand, appreciate, and articulate the qualities and accomplishments of the University.

In the longer term, my aspiration is for the communications staff to become the in-house experts counseling University officers and academic units on how best to use communications to achieve their goals. We should be using a wide range of multimedia communications tools to share the extraordinary work of our faculty and students.

One in spirit: Universities are by nature energetic, open places, in which many competing ideas are floated. We don’t move in lockstep, and we are comfortable with an openness and transparency that a business organization would find difficult to handle. Those are the features I most love about being in a university.

However, our communications efforts can benefit from additional discipline and academic rigor. A good communications plan involves determining what goals we want to achieve, articulating what information we want to share, and detailing what individuals and groups will care about this information. Then, and only then, can we identify the communications tools that will be most effective.

Who gets the message: We need to communicate internally, in order to ensure that our own faculty, staff, and students feel informed about and connected to what’s going on in other parts of the University and in the central administration. I’d like to see us increase our outreach to alumni and better communicate the University’s strengths to prospective undergraduate and graduate students.

Beyond that, our efforts should be directed to the global academic community of scholars, including faculty we may want to recruit; donors and prospective donors; parents of current students; neighbors and community leaders; public officials at the city, state, and federal levels; and foundations and granting agencies, to name a few.

Web effect: The Internet has lessened the news media’s power as the gatekeepers of information. We know that during times of crisis or controversy, people are most likely to use our Web site for rumor control and fact-checking. In addition, we have the opportunity to do more with multimedia—audio and video streaming—to give people a more intimate glimpse into our faculty’s work. It is powerful and exciting, but it requires deploying our resources differently to take full advantage of these avenues of communication.