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TU’s Story—Updated.

Summer 2018

TU’s Story—Updated.

By Thad DeVassie

Sitting at the Sabaidee Coffee House on a cold morning last fall, I recall the mix of emotions swirling in my head and gut: confidence laced with a tinge of concern; anxiousness and uncertainty amid profound promise and there’s good reason for this, which I will explain.

Hired alongside my design colleague, Jeremy Slagle, I was brought in as the strategist and writer. Together we would help update the Tiffin University story and brand. Jeremy and I had spent the last eight months on campus getting to know this University, its rich tapestry of people and traditions, its formidable challenges as well as the “I-told-you-we-could” triumphs. We immersed ourselves in the TU experience and now we were about to walk into President Schumacher’s office and play back for her what we had learned along with narrative that we believed was undeniable and key to reframe the Tiffin University story and identity.

It’s a tall order for outsiders with no previous knowledge of TU. To be clear, we were as green about TU history and story as the scales that represent Dragon pride.

I told President Schumacher and others on more than one occasion that TU didn’t need to bring in consultants to suggest who it is. Rather, TU needed someone who was going to listen to the people who live and breathe TU, and who can interpret and articulate that experience in an accurate and compelling way—and that’s what we set out to do.

But here’s the interesting thing … with two decades of experience doing this type of work, the Tiffin University story we were hearing was unexpected and uniquely different than any other university or education client we had ever worked with. As compelling as that was, it also meant we were wading in unchartered waters — and we weren’t sure what the appetite would be for a message that was in such stark contrast to higher education’s usual marketing vernacular.

THE MAKINGS OF A STORY

We met with a lot of people—students, faculty, staff, leadership, alumni, online learners and donors, and logged hours upon hours of interviews. Much of what we heard, we expected to hear about higher education, but most importantly, we learned that Tiffin University does not fit nicely into typical higher education boxes. TU is neither a liberal arts college nor a large research institution. There are no ivory towers, tenured professors, deep endowments or an air of privilege or elitism. As a matter of fact, Tiffin University is not a university aspiring to be anything other than itself. There are no clear-cut schools it can be compared to.

While understanding what TU is not proved to be helpful, it’s not the way to define what it actually is. This is where conversations with students, faculty, alumni and so many others began to resonate. We began to learn that TU was perhaps the most practical private university we’d encountered—with teaching led professionals who understand the rapid changes in a modern workforce—stuff that really matters to parents, like me, who want to know that a curriculum and degree has currency in the world of work, and at a cost that puts a private university on par with much larger public universities, once financial aid is factored in.

We learned there was an uncommon sense of belonging at TU. Whether they came from two counties over or two continents away, there was a fellowship and connectedness among students, and even more so between student and faculty. Admittedly it sounded trite, almost canned. But hearing it over and over, it became undeniable. And seeing it play out was the turning point in making a tired talking point a tangible point of pride that could be demonstrated and witnessed by others.

As we dug deeper we were surprised at the language people were using to describe TU, who comes here and why (hint: the opportunity); how this sense of belonging was more than just surface-level congeniality. These were statements we rarely hear in higher education circles. Faculty and staff told us:

“We’re catering to a new breed of students: first-generation, blue-collar, and we do great things with these students.”

“We serve a student type here that otherwise might not get invited to the table. We care about every single student type.”

“There is freedom to be innovative, different. We get to be entrepreneurial.”

“This is who we are and we shouldn’t shy away from it.”

And students and alumni shared their deep affinity for TU:

“Students come here to create and be themselves rather than find themselves.”

“We’re still here — and that’s because of faculty.”

“In short, it’s the people. I know everyone says this … and it’s true.”

But it was when a staff member looked at us and unapologetically described TU as “scrappy” with a room full of people nodding in agreement, we knew we’d experienced a powerful and validating moment. Couple that with this proclamation from a graduating senior who spoke up with what could only be explained as a mix of bold confidence and enduring love for the school she called home for the last four years:

We have a chip on our shoulder; we’re not flashy, we’re not big, we’re not a lot of things. We’re about hard work and perseverance.

With 196 pages of feedback, statements like these cut to the core of what makes TU unique.

We learned that those who comprise TU’s diverse community are confident and comfortable in their skin. What they want is to be nothing other than themselves, to tell this shared story with many individual and personalized chapters about this place they adopt as home with the same confidence.

EMBRACE THE CHALLENGE

We were about to weave all this unvarnished feedback from those who live and love this University into a story that is uniquely TU—a story we strongly believed in, but we knew it was an unconventional one, and we wondered if the President and University cabinet would be willing to embrace a story that cuts against the safe storylines that are prevalent across higher education today.

We didn’t dare set out to “make up a story,” this bold, for the sake of marketing. Rather, we discovered it rooted in TU’s rich history where the motto—without risk, there is no gain—served as the anchor from which to build it. When looking at TU through this lens, “scrappy” made a lot of sense. That mindset is woven into four key themes of opportunity, practicality, teaching and belonging that frame the TU story.

Of course we questioned the need to uphold certain expectations, validate perceptions and present TU in a way that walked in alignment with others. But that is not the TU way. It’s not what got TU here, nor would it be the path it takes going forward. We knew we needed to go bold.

If there was any concern about being bold and unconventional—and indeed there was—President Schumacher admonished them immediately. After presenting the findings, the story, the themes, she was brief and to the point: “This is us. I love it.”

At the President’s request for a succinct way to tee up the story, it led us to a theme: Challenge Conventional Wisdom. In essence, TU is saying: if we believe it’s possible, and there is benefit, we will forge ahead with the calculated risks we’re known for taking. We’ll take a nod from our history as we create a future that best prepares all Dragons for success.

The TU story today is a collective and shared story of those who live it—and right now, we’re in the early stages of rolling it out across campus and to a broader audience in a variety of ways: video, website, individual stories, student recruitment material and in the pages of this magazine you hold. It will be a gradual and continue rollout that happens over a series of months.

The story and brand is made complete with the new Tiffin University brand mark developed by Slagle Design. It incorporates all we heard and learned in developing the story and applied to a simple but recognizable mark. It is an evolution of the existing TU mark with a nod to history while also speaking to belonging and connectedness, providing a parallel picture of what it means for students to walk out this journey with faculty, staff and coaches who care deeply about their success.

In retrospect, this TU story is not one we imagined writing—ever, but when you take time to listen, and listen carefully, you’ll find the story already exists. It’s there just waiting to be told. We took a risk to tell this one, and if we’ve learned anything from our time at TU, we can take comfort in knowing there will be gains that emerge from it.

Thad DeVassie is the principal of Ratchet Strategy + Communication based in Columbus, Ohio. He is a communication strategist, writer and storyteller who specializes in helping organizations articulate what makes them unique and stand out in a sea of sameness. You can find him at ratchetstrategy.com, on LinkedIn, and collaborating with Jeremy Slagle on Joy Venture, their passion project and podcast at joyventure.net.