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Guest Editorial: UVM’s good idea is only as good as its branding

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Posted on August 26, 2013 |
By Emerson Lynn



The University of Vermont’s business school has decided to be a little more like the state it represents, which means transforming its Master’s of Business Administration to an MBA in Sustainable Entrepreneurship.

The reason is clear: UVM’s existing program is not on par with MBA programs at other universities. In the competitive environment to attract students, schools must figure out programs that separate themselves from others. UVM saw the twin messages of entrepreneurship and the environment as something that might accomplish the school’s goals.

UVM’s professor William Cats-Baril, who will direct the program, was quoted as saying: “Vermont is a brand, and this is how people around the country understand what Vermont is about: It’s a small state extremely energized by a few very well known entrepreneurs.”

The goals of the program — which will be open to between 50 and 60 students next fall — is to teach the “triple bottom line” of what is profitable, but also benefits people and the planet. In other words, it’s not all about the money or growth.

The Sustainability Entrepreneurship is a good idea for an MBA program at UVM. It takes advantage of the state’s reputation, and there is every reason to think the school could attract a class that would distinguish itself. It could also be responsible for graduating an entrepreneur or two who could do wonderful things for Vermont.

But success won’t come UVM’s way if it simply creates the program and waits for the world to discover it. And that has been its pattern.

UVM also decided several years ago to distinguish itself with its Spires of Excellence (now called the Transdisciplinary Research Initiative), including Food Systems, Complex Systems and Neuroscience, Behavior and Health. It was an idea that was ahead of its time, and it was offered for many of the same reasons as the new MBA program: UVM was looking for a way to distinguish itself.

It’s still a valuable program, but it’s undersold.

The food systems spire, for example, has many of the same compelling arguments that are being attributed to the Sustainability Entrepreneurship MBA. It’s all about sustainability. It’s all about the earth. It’s all about people. And profit. It’s also ground into the character of the state it represents. Food and Vermont — that’s about as symbiotic as a relationship gets.

But it’s not something the school promotes. It’s not something the school has embraced in terms of continuously pushing for world-class researchers/professors.

There is every chance the average Vermonter doesn’t know the Food Systems spire even exists, or Complex Systems, or Neuroscience, Behavior and Health.

There is a certain irony in the fact the school is launching a program on sustainability when it could do so much more to “sustain” itself by letting the world know who it is, what it offers and why people should care.

It’s not a challenge unique to UVM. It’s a Vermont problem. We have several core attributes that separate us from the rest of the nation, but we neglect to brand ourselves in ways that matter.

Here are three core areas that could serve as examples: education, energy and the environment. The big three. Sustainability is part of each. So is entrepreneurship. There is an obvious and very compelling synergy between UVM and the state in terms of a shared identity and need. But at almost every level, there is a separateness that exists and which prevents any joint branding within the state and outside the state.

Because we fail to raise our profile, we also fail to execute at a higher level.

If our potential were less than it is, and if UVM were not the top-flight university that it is, then we’d point our questions in a different direction. But that’s not the case. Vermont does have the potential to be a world leader in each of these categories; so does the University of Vermont.

But there is a difference between having the potential and exercising it. The former means nothing without the latter.

Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger

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