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Counselors to Higher Education History

By: Curt Carlson, former CHE chair
October 15, 2014


CHE grew out of PRSA’s Education and Cultural Organization Section (ECOS).  Established in 1976, ECOS included a broad sweep of the non-profit world, including colleges and universities, symphonies, museums and proprietary schools.  Membership was diverse, but executive committee leadership most often was recruited from higher education. While ECOS welcomed members from all nonprofit categories and worked to develop programming that was relevant to all of them, the section’s membership numbers declined.

Some said the ECOS mission was too broadly defined, and therefore unable to serve any one of the categories of cultural organizations effectively. ECOS members from colleges and universities, though the majority of the group, felt somewhat disenfranchised because a significant part of the section’s programming was marginally relevant to higher education.

Despite declining membership and attendance, ECOS and its leadership could claim many accomplishments and a small but loyal following.

For instance, some early practitioners in higher ed PR might recall an ECOS conference, which Judy Phair chaired.  At this conference, Professor Kathleen Kelly presented her seminal research on the relationship of public relations and fund raising in higher education.  She powerfully stated that development officers ought to report to public relations professionals, rather than vice versa (the CASE “advancement” model; K. S. Kelly, “Fund Raising: Functional Element in Public Relations Education,” Journalism Educator 47(2) 1992. 19-25.)

In 1996, outgoing ECOS Chair Milt Capp (Vanderbilt) invited Curt Carlson, then associate vice president for public affairs at Emory University, to “run” for chair of ECOS. (There were no other candidates). Carlson accepted the position with the stipulation—encouraged by Judy Voss, then PRSA’s national Coordinator of Sections—that he and a newly recruited section executive committee could work toward re-focusing the ECOS mission on higher education.

Gary McKillips, vice president for external relations at UT-Knoxville, became Carlson’s first new board recruit and vice-chair. Wendy Adair, associate vice chancellor for university relations for the University of Houston, was the only active carryover board member representing higher education from ECOS. Another ECOS carryover board member was Laurie Shane, the marketing director for Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center.

Shane initially advocated retaining at least a core of programming for the remaining members who represented cultural organizations. However, with further discussion and reflection, Carlson and Shane identified few commonly held issues and interests.  In representing a major cultural organization (Atlanta Symphony, High Museum), Shane was interested in concepts such as “cultural tourism,” while Carlson and his small board group were more concerned with higher education matters. 

It became quickly apparent that structure, mode of operations, and internal culture of the respective organization types were significantly different.  While both cultural organizations and universities appreciated the basics of public relations practice, the working group felt a PRSA specialized section should look beyond PR basics to meatier issues relating to their respective types of organizations.

The ECOS Executive Committee (Carlson, McKillips and Adair) and Shane reached an informal agreement to split ECOS, allowing its higher education PR practitioners, then the majority of ECOS members, to retain the organizational shell (and budget) of the current section, while encouraging cultural organization members to move to the travel and tourism section—or consider forming a new section strictly focused on cultural, nonprofit organization issues such as, for instance, Shane’s No. 1 priority issue of “cultural tourism.”

Carlson and McKillips then reached out to peers at other institutions, describing what they had encountered in the remnants of ECOS, and suggested a strategy towards building a new, higher education-focused PRSA section.  They received strong and nearly unanimous encouragement to continue in this direction.

There was much discussion of what CASE was NOT doing for senior public relations practitioners, and how PRSA could provide a more appropriate home for PR leaders in higher education as it did for many in the business and corporate world. 

Among those committee members consulted were higher ed public relations leaders John Burness (Duke), Fred Volkmann (WashU), Tim McDonough (ACE) and Don Eastman (University of Georgia), as well as many of those who later agreed to serve on the charter CHE executive committee, named below.

Illustrating the rather tenuous nature of the organization at the time, Judy Voss (then Bond), the PRSA staff member at PRSA headquarters who provided support for sections, wrote a note to Carlson in early 1998 encouraging the recruiting of a newly constituted executive committee:

Hi Curt -

Somewhere soon we need to talk about the 1998 slate for the ECOS section. You're chair already, so we need to fill chair-elect, secretary and treasurer.  The remaining committee members (at least 12, no more than 15!) may be appointed later. Laurie (Shane) could fill one of the positions - just to keep her on the board. Any other suggestions? (Your friends and family?) Let's talk.
Judy Bond (Voss)

Over the next several weeks, Executive Committee leadership recruited new members to the ECOS board including: Judy Phair (University of Maryland), Alex Huppé (Harvard University), Kenneth Service (University of Pittsburgh), Mary Ackerly (Agnes Scott College), Gene Stevenson, observer (The Norrell Corporation), Deborah Boyce (Bowling Green State University), Paul Kincaid (SW Missouri State University), Mitch Kozikowski (University of Pittsburgh), and Jay Williams (Salt Lake Community College), Marsha McClean (Elizabeth City State University), Eileen Schneider, Arthur Page (SUNY-Buffalo), Roland King (NAICU), David Yarnell (West Shore Community College), Michelle Morris (Barry University), and Don Hale (Carnegie-Melon).

Carlson and McKillips drew up a preliminary proposal for splitting ECOS, outlining a working philosophy more in line with their thinking and the ideas gained from peers.  They then obtained an agreement from the other newly recruited executive committee members to pursue this strategy. After several iterations of the proposal, including a list of name ideas, the group ultimately settled on the present name, Counselors to Higher Education.

A quorum of the new executive committee, in a conference call on May 20, 1998, formally approved the new name and mission statement of CHE. The first CHE secretary-treasurer, Deb Boyce, recorded the decision in the minutes as follows:

Name and positioning statement:


Communications and Advocacy for Colleges, Universities, Research, and Related Organizations.

Mission Statement:

This PRSA section focuses on the interests of public relations professionals performing services for the enhancement, quality and stature of education, with emphasis on institutions of higher education.

Membership is open to public relations practitioners who support universities, colleges, schools, research institutions, and related organizations--or, to anyone with an interest in public relations issues of concern to these institutions.

Paralleling the mission of PRSA, this section offers professional development, conducts research and provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and experience.

Seminars, programs and publications address important issues, trends and information primarily focused on higher education.

The executive committee authorized Chairman Carlson to recruit nominees for unfilled offices to be ratified by a Section Council business meeting at the upcoming PRSA national meeting in Boston.

PRSA coordinating staff, Judy Bond (Voss), noted that the usual requirement for election of officers by the whole section membership could be waived in the first year, “due to the transitory state of things.”

Later in 1998, the PRSA Board officially sanctioned the creation of Counselors to Higher Education. The end of ECOS and the birth of CHE were noted in the PRSA archival records (provided by Judy Voss) as follows:

“The Educational and Cultural Organizations Section was established in 1976. In 1998, a number of college and university public relations officers who are active in PRSA saw the need for a section serving public relations leaders in higher education.  Following discussions, the restructuring and mission of CHE (formed out of the former Education and Cultural Organizations section) was approved by the PRSA Board in late 1998. In 1999, approximately 30 PRSA members in higher education public relations began refining the CHE structure and mission. Programming and member services began later that same year.”

Now that the new group had been forged, the executive committee realized much work remained to formalize a long-term vision and strategic plan that would ensure this would be truly a grassroots organization, based upon the needs and issues of its constituents.

In a conference call of the executive committee that fall, the idea for a national “summit meeting” of top public relations leaders in higher education emerged. At that point no one envisioned this “summit meeting” would become a major annual event. The new CHE leadership group thought of this as a “Greenbrier-type” event, similar in a small way to the historic conference in Greenbrier, West Virginia, many decades earlier that resulted in the reconfiguration of higher education associations of public relations, alumni, and fundraising professionals and, eventually, the birth of CASE.

CHE’s first public appearance was at the Boston PRSA national conference in October 1998. By the time of this conference, the “new” executive committee had become very active, but the deadlines for the conference passed before the new committee had even formed.  So a very small group quickly put together a program that would enable them to capture some visibility within PRSA.

The first face-to-face meeting of the new CHE executive committee happened in Boston, an event that created a strong CHE “buzz” at the conference, as had been happening at PRSA headquarters.  No less a PRSA luminary than the late Pat Jackson had heard of the new CHE team's efforts. He surprised the group by appearing at the planning meeting and volunteered to “do anything he could” to help, and shared with the young group his particular well-known brand of infectious enthusiasm.

The executive committee’s recommendation to hold the first CHE Spring event, which was named the “CHE Summit,” was ratified at Boston. The group decided to make the first Summit meeting a “by-invitation-only” event and extended personal invitations to the list of prospective higher education PR leaders from around the country, including all types of post-secondary educational institutions.

The first Summit was held in Atlanta at the Emory University Hotel and Conference Center in March 1999.   A program committee chaired by Gary McKillips planned the Atlanta Summit. PRSA granted permission to invite non-PRSA members, to open up these formative discussions to a group of people distinguished by their leadership records, rather than by their professional affiliations.

The committee invited Pat Jackson to attend this Atlanta Summit as a facilitator and participant.  In general, the format included a discussion of broad goals, as well as break-out sessions addressing issues common to each category of higher education institution. 

Wendy Adair published an account of CHE activities at the Boston meeting in the first edition of a CHE newsletter. Her article is excerpted here:

Boston Meeting Successful Beginning

Counselors to Higher Education (CHE) was launched in October 1998 during the International PRSA meeting in Boston with an outstanding seminar and a wonderful social event.


Curt Carlson, CHE chairman and AVP for Public Affairs at Emory University moderated the first CHE Special Interest Panel, which saw a full house of approximately 40 PRSA members in the audience. 

CHE Board member Dr. Alex Huppé, then Director of Public Affairs at Harvard University, began the discussion by describing how higher education differs from other industries because of its strikingly different markets and ways of doing business. 

Dr. Lorissa Grunig, associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland College Park, cited a recent study from the PR Reporter on excellence that concluded the great challenge for all public relations professionals across the for-profit and nonprofit world was to become more relationship-oriented.  She pointed out that higher education was no longer considered a “growth industry," and that PR professionals should assume the approach of two-way symmetrical communication, seeking dialogue and mutual benefits.

Gene Stevenson, vice president of corporate communication for Norell Corp., was the final panelist. He warned that developing strategies outside of the education culture was doomed to failure.  He underscored that higher education PR professionals should embrace the unique interactive culture as a competitive advantage, and recognize that university/college culture is a long-term process, and that only behaviors can be changed for the short term.

Peter Drucker’s teleconferenced message to the whole assembly reinforced the messages from the CHE panel.  He challenged the profession to work harder at telling higher education administrators and academics what external audiences hear and perceive, and what they want and need. 

Evening Social a Great Success

The CHE group gathered at the top of the Bay Tower to watch the lights of the city and to meet and begin the process of forming relationships and sharing ideas and stories.  Even though the reception was arranged late in the registration process, 13 CHE members participated in the evening's festivities.

Pat Jackson Speaks Out to Higher Education Counselors

The cover article in that November’s issue of CASE Currents by Pat Jackson addressed the need for issue anticipation to become a major part of the responsibilities of all PR practitioners.  He felt this was particularly important for higher education officers who are about to meet the downside of what many other groups have seen in the way of decreasing public opinion.  Jackson’s message seemed particularly pertinent to our group and he agreed to let us excerpt from it for that issue of the newsletter.

The Atlanta CHE Summit

After the Boston meeting, work began in earnest to plan the Atlanta Summit meeting and personally invite, by phone call and letter, leaders known by Executive Committee members to the event. The Executive Committee held very high hopes for the first Summit. Excerpts from a letter of invitation describe their lofty goals:

Dear (first name):

As we discussed on the phone, you were nominated by the Executive Board of the new Counselors to Higher Education (CHE) section of PRSA to join us in a "summit" at Emory University March 4 - 6, to help us create a useful national agenda for practitioners in higher education.

This "summit" meeting is being limited to an invited list of approximately 40-50 higher education public relations practitioners from the spectrum of public and private colleges and universities from across the U.S.  We have spent some time compiling an invitation list of experienced colleagues whom we know to be vitally interested in the well-being of our profession and who might be willing to help us thoughtfully consider ways to improve our institutions through the work we do as PR professionals.  Patrick Jackson, a leading light in our profession, a former national president of PRSA, and one of the most in-demand speakers on the professional PR lecture circuit, strongly supports our efforts.  He is a member of CHE and will be the keynoter and participant with us at this meeting.

We hope to emerge from the summit with an essential list of questions and topics that will guide our new section -- the top questions and topics that cause sleepless nights to you and your president. Further, we'd like to emerge with a plan for addressing those questions and topics—a plan that will guide us now and set a direction for the next several years.

You have the opportunity to help us create from the ground up a new, vital and relevant voice in this country for the benefit of our profession. Because we want to keep this "summit" small and focused, and because time is short, we ask that you commit as soon as possible by mailing the enclosed registration form to PRSA.

Ultimately, PR leaders from more than 40 colleges and universities from 20 states across the country attended. The first strategic plan for CHE came together at the Atlanta Summit, leading the way to a series of annual CHE Spring Summit meeting events that continue to the present day.


Location of Senior Summit meetings:

  • March 1999                 Atlanta
  • April 2000                   Orlando
  • April 2001                   Boston
  • April 2002                   Scottsdale
  • April 2003                   Philadelphia
  • April 2004                   Chicago
  • April  2005-2015         Washington, DC

CHE Executive Committee chairs:

  • 1998-1999      Curt Carlson
  • 1999-2001      Gary McKillips
  • 2001-2003      Don Hale
  • 2003-2005      Deb Boyce/Wendy Adair
  • 2005-2007      Lori Doyle
  • 2007-2008      Cindy Pollard
  • 2009-2011      Charlie Melichar
  • 2011-2013      Michael Warden
  • 2013- 2015     Joseph Brennan   
  • 2015 -2016     Jim Katsaounis


Robert Aaron, Illinois Wesleyan University; Mary Ackerly, Agnes Scott College; Judy Bond, PRSA; Deborah Boyce, Bowling Green State University; Doris Burdick, Southern Adventist University; Curt Carlson, Emory University; Sandra Carnet, Georgia State University; Donald Eastman, University of Georgia; Ray Gaulke, President & COO, PRSA; Janis D. Gleason, Emory University; Julie Haas, Johnson County Community College; Don Hale, Carnegie Mellon University; Gail Hogan, Cuyahoga Community College; Alex Huppe, Harvard University; Patrick Jackson, Jackson, Jackson & Wagner; Mark Kelly, Loyola College in Maryland; Roland King, National Association of Independent Colleges & Universities; Stephen J. MacCarthy, Penn State; John C. Maguire, Western Illinois University; Gary W. McKillips, The University of Tennessee; Marsha McLean, Elizabeth City State University; Michele Morris, Barry University; Toni O'Neal Mosley, Clark Atlanta University; Ron Nief, Beloit College; Robert L. O'Rourke, California Institute of Technology; Arthur Page, University At Buffalo; Claudia E. Robinson, Dallas County Community College District; Gene C. Sands, Louisiana State University; Kenneth P. Service, University of Pittsburgh; L. Jay Williams, Salt Lake Community College; David Yarnell, West Shore Community College; Edward Ziegler, Rowan University

An incomplete list of ECOS Chairs and approximate year of service from Judy Phair’s records:

  • Mike Raddock (1983)
  • Don Cannalte (1984) 
  • Pat Hunt (1986)
  • Phil Tomlin (1987)
  • Kathleen Kelly (1989)
  • Judy Phair (1990)
  • Bob Woodruff (1991)
  • Karen Cedzo (1992)
  • Rene Henry (1993)
  • Milt Capp (1997)
  • Curt Carlson (1998)