The media loves covering student protests like this one at George Washington University in 1969.
The media loves covering student protests like this one at George Washington University in 1969.

Ever notice that high-school teachers are almost always depicted as heroes in films, whereas university professors are almost always villains?

Compare the moral certitude of the teachers in To Sir With Love, or Dead Poets Society with the “evil Dean” stereotype from all those 80s fraternity movies. Professors are often disheveled and obsessed with their work (the villains in the Spiderman movies were once science professors).

These caricatures raise the question of how the media treat all aspects of academic life. University and colleges across the country are full of good ideas and policies that never make the transformation from the lab to the market.  One reason is because of the lack of marketing knowledge amongst university administrators and a misunderstanding of how the media covers complex topics.

Strikes and scandals on campus are often eagerly scooped up by the mainstream press whereas the realms of academic papers published on important topics often go unnoticed.

The media loves covering student protests like this one at George Washington University in 1969.
Caption: The media loves covering student protests like this one at George Washington University in 1969

The reaction to this from university and college administrators has been mixed. Should we throw up our hands and close our doors to the press? Or should we beef up our media relations offices and spin the messages ourselves? Either way, the relationship between the media and academia is tenuous at best.

In the last few years, with the explosion of social media and instant news dissemination over the web, universities have found it harder to shape their image and manage press releases. This in, turn, allows media coverage to inadvertently shape public policy debates on public education.

Some Canadian universities in particular have been vocal in the past few years about the perceived tyranny of the McLean’s Guide to Canadian Universities.  The reality is that this document has a disproportionately large effect on the choices young people make regarding their post-secondary education.

On June 16-18, MaRS will be co-hosting and event designed to explore these questions, the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education, put on by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA).

The conference is designed to workshop university media officers, academics and journalists on how to craft a relationship between the media and higher education institutions that is robust and beneficial to all parties.

And hopefully, the image of the lone academic dreaming up world domination from the lab will be replaced with something more nuanced.

For the speakers list, more information and tickets, check out www.worldviewsconference.com or check out the event listings for June 16-18 here and the Science in the Movies on June 17.

Joseph Wilson

Joseph is currently an education advisor at MaRS. He also writes on issues of technology and culture for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…