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Allison Barber
WGU Indiana’s chancellor leads a public relations campaign

December 2010

ALLISON BARBER is back in her home state of Indiana after 18 years in Washington, D.C., and she’s fired up about her position as the first chancellor of WGU Indiana, which the governor has dubbed the state’s “eighth university.”

Her job description is as non-traditional as Western Governors University, the nonprofit, online, competency-based institution she’s working for, which administers WGU Indiana’s programs. She doesn’t deal with academics. She’s meant to market WGU Indiana to potential students, academic partners and employers, in the process transforming it into a major player within the state’s educational landscape.

So Barber’s speech is peppered with phrases that most chancellors have never uttered: force multipliers; earned media; and of course, “campaign”—not a political campaign, but a public relations one.

“I am on a campaign to help Hoosiers get educated,” Barber explained. In particular, she’s trying to convince adults with some postsecondary education to return to school and complete their degrees, or earn new ones. “We’re selling a life-changing experience,” she said. “That’s not an easy sell.”

But it’s the sort of challenge that Barber embraces. A former teacher who has run her own public relations firm, served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for internal communications as well as Department of Defense public liaison, and helped the White House establish communications in Iraq, there’s not much that Barber likes more than work.

“I love trying to make a difference,” said Barber. She was slightly baffled when she first returned to the midwest, where people take the weekends off, waiting until Monday to return calls. “I thought my iPhone was broken,” she recalled, laughing.

The pace of life may be slower in Indiana, but Barber, who started as chancellor at the end of May, doesn’t appear to have adjusted her speedometer. She uses her iPhone plus two Macintosh laptop computers, which sit side by side on her desk in her tenth-floor downtown Indianapolis office, to keep tabs on WGU Indiana’s million-dollar marketing campaign, which includes online, bus, radio, billboard, print and television ads.

“Eyeballs matter,” Barber said. So she has made sure that WGU Indiana has been visible in the community, with tables at the Indiana State Fair, the Gary South Shore Air Show, the Black Expo, the TechPoint Innovation Summit, and on the community college and hospital campuses. Barber has spoken at the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns and met with the Indiana congressional delegation, and plans to speak at chambers of commerce and Rotary Club meetings. “We’re trying to figure out where the force multipliers are,” she said—in other words, who is most likely to pass the word about WGU Indiana.

Then there’s generating “earned media”—coverage due to an event. On the day that this reporter visited, for instance, Barber was on the phone with WGU Indiana’s public relations representative, hammering out details of the school’s upcoming graduation commencement. She wanted to make sure the Indianapolis news bureaus got a press release, that the Associated Press received a photo, and that local radio stations were alerted about graduates from their areas. How about a post-commencement e-newsletter? And had there been any “bounce” from the radio interview she did last week? The school now has 125 friends on Facebook, she mentioned, adding ruefully, “That’s pathetic.”

Then she was on to an e-mail from the vice president of workforce development at Vincennes University, letting her know that both the school’s president and provost liked her idea to partner with Vincennes, which was founded in 1801, to offer tuition discounts and an application fee waiver to their graduates who want to earn more advanced degrees through WGU Indiana. “That rocks!” Barber exclaimed, delighted. Her plan is to promote the relationship as Indiana’s newest university partnering with Indiana’s oldest.

Also on her agenda that day: finishing up paperwork sealing a deal with Dollars for Scholars, which provides money to college-bound high school seniors, to promote WGU Indiana to their parents. Through this new sponsorship, parents of Dollars for Scholars recipients who want to return to college are eligible for scholarships from WGU Indiana. The idea is to tap into families that obviously already value education, Barber said.

Meanwhile, she was preparing for a web-seminar with Indiana’s Department of Workforce Development, so that their employees could promote the school to the thousands of displaced and unemployed workers they counsel. Barber is also crafting a pledge for a coalition of Indiana companies who would help promote WGU Indiana to their employees, and promise to consider hiring WGU Indiana graduates.

“We’re going deep with our relationships with leaders of the state,” Barber said. “And that is the advantage we have as a state model.”

—Kathy Witkowsky

Kathy Witkowsky is a freelance reporter in Missoula, Montana.
(Indiana’s “Eighth University”)

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