I care somewhat about the websites of 5 specific universities. The University of Texas at Tyler is where I met my wife and got my bachelor's degree. The University of Central Florida is when I made the big move out of Texas and got my next two degrees. When I moved to Charlotte, I found the University of North Carolina at Charlotte uses Drupal as the standard software backend for their websites. Now that I'm in Georgia, I've also discovered Georgia Tech has a school-wide mandate to convert their entire web presence to use Drupal over the next three years. Georgia Tech has been a sponsor of the Atlanta Drupal User's Group. Finally, Appalachian State University gets the minority of my concern and attention from the group, but they also use Drupal to some degree and have a really smart devops guy to keep it running.
One of the things I can rant about is how dysfunctional universities can be. One of those areas of dysfunction is a long-standing collegiate practice of treating colleges or schools within a university as independent bodies and how that extends to the marketing and branding of the university.
Take Georgia Tech as an example of a university doing the web wrong. Visiting their homepage has a top navigation bar, a slide show, news, some big buttons, and the main navigation last. The page is themed in gold, black, navy, and grey. I'm assuming from that scheme those are the university colors for sports. The body text uses Helvetica and icons are placed using Font Awesome, suggesting Twitter Bootstrap might be a base theme for the site.
College of Computing
Move next to the Georgia Tech College of Computing. The top of the page is different; the style has changed and all navigation, including the main logo, lead to only topics relevant to the College of Computing. The color scheme is mostly navy and greys, with very little use of gold or black. Text on the page uses different fonts, Arial, Oswald, and Alegreya are the typeface choices. Though the bottom navigation to resume browsing the rest of the university attempts to keep many of the same elements as the "main" site, it is notably missing links to the liberal arts and business colleges.
Ernest Scheller College of Business
After navigating back to the main page and clicking the College of Business link I discovered yet a different style of page header and navigation, which offers a virtual tour I don't recall seeing on any of the other university pages. The attempt at keeping a universal bottom navigation from the main site and on the computing site was ignored. The only apparent link way back to the rest of the university is a 7px high graphical link, abbreviated "GATECH HOME." The color scheme switches to a light blue and white. The font family is Verdana. It's the end of 2013, and the main feature of the site is "Dean's report 2012: Bridging the Worlds of Business and Technology." I have no idea, nor do I care, who Ernest Scheller is or why the Technology & Management program is named after Denning.
This weekend was DrupalCamp Atlanta. I discovered at their career fair that they're looking for a Drupal-focused webmaster for the Georgia Tech College of Engineering. She's looking for someone to make a website for them that's better than all her peers. She has a list of peers, she knows what they're doing, and needs some professional counseling on how to achieve her grand web strategy. One thing she doesn't want is a website that looks like Pinterest.
Move next to UNC Charlotte. There's no insider knowledge needed to see they've got a lot of disagreement about their web strategy. The front page meta tags readily expose the main site is based on Drupal 7, which shows adherence to the standard. Based on the color scheme of the website, I judge the school colors to be just green, maybe green and white. While trying to click around for doing the same sort of main site-to-college comparison, I stumbled in trying to pick out the correct navigation point in their menu.
BELK COLLEGE of BUSINESS
After finding Belk College of Business under academics, whoever Belk is, I found that the main bar on the top of the business page is largely the same as the main page, except they removed all the bits of minimally helpful navigation and replaced it with just "BELK COLLEGE of BUSINESS." I guess it's hard to hear in Charlotte. For some reason, that header is in Times New Roman, though the entire rest of the page uses a sans-serif font family. Fortunately, there is some bit of design consistency here, even though it is hosted on a separate subdomain, and is hostile about linking to other parts of the university. It's also notable they've selected a tabbed navigation style over-layed on a slideshow image.
College of Computing and Informatics
Going back to the main site academics page, then picking the computer college, I discovered they kept the same, un-helpful header style the business college had. The navigation through the college details is on the left side instead of tabbed. The main page content has no slideshow area, but features a bunch of videoed interviews with people that appear unlikely to be interesting. The fonts, header, and footer are at least consistent, even if mostly useless.
The headers of each of the colleges implemented the Drupal search module for finding information within the college. The default search in Drupal is notorious for sucking and the outputs I tested for each of the colleges brought me no pleasant surprises. To fix it, and use Drupal, they need to implement Apache Solr.
In the bottom navigation was a second search box, with "Search uncc.edu" pre-filled as help text. Submitting a test search there redirected me to Google. The reason to me is clear. The main site is separate from the business, which is separate from the computer guys. I suspect going through other non-college sites relating to student life would have similar disconnect. To unify them, they had to go through a third-party spider to consolidate search results across subdomains.
Though I know at least some divisions of App use Drupal, their main site does not. I already know from this fact that they must suffer from inconsistencies in their site navigation and branding. Judging from their home page color scheme, I guess their school colors to be black and yellow. After navigating three layers into the website to find their list of colleges, I noted that the site maintained a consistent design.
Walker College of Business
I noted there was some delay when I switched from the main site to the business page as I was querying new DNS and loading things which were not previously cached. The business page switched platforms to a site which keeps many of the same design elements, but which has subtle changes in navigation, likely due to the fact that it runs Drupal 6 instead of whatever other software the main site is running. As with the other aforesaid sites, this business page changes the navigation to be college-centric. The link to "Academics" has been re-defined to mean undergrad and graduate programs within the business college rather than the academics programs across the university. Unlike the main site, the business college makes no apparent attempt to wrap even legitimate addresses in HTML5 address tags.
Computer Science Department
App state hides compsci as a department within a rather large college. Getting to compsci, I had to navigate back to the main site, click the arts college, which was a separate Drupal installation. From there, I navigated to the computer science department, which is apparently its own separate multisite Drupal installation. Though the theming was consistent across the entire navigation tree, the compartmentalization of the websites has associated navigation compartmentalization; the Academics link for compsci is only academics related to the compsci department. Clicking on the main banner image does not send you to the main App State page, nor does the Home breadcrumb underneath.
Their main page makes a point of inserting a copyright meta tag, dated 2010, even though they've implemented the HTML5 <address> tag around "© 2013 Appalachian State University Boone, NC 28608 / 828-262-2000", which is a sloppy application of that tag at best.
Doing a search from the College of Business did not use the Drupal search module, rather it redirected to an un-marked search result page, "© 2007 Appalachian State University Boone, NC 28608 / 828-262-2000." Oddly enough, their search software had an option for me to "Get Directions" using Mapquest.
As feel and consistency goes in the front-end, App State does a great job, apparently assisted by the fact much of their web infrastructure takes advantage of Drupal's multisite feature. Unfortunately, that also means each multisite is a separate and independent marketing tool since the navigation for each multisite is specific only to that site.
Judging from the front page, their school colors are black and gold, though my interpretation might be swayed since I went there. It could also be interpreted as yellow instead of gold. Their main page is nothing especially novel. Main links, a slide show, some news, and boring address information. It looks like a standard Bootstrap-based Wordpress theme which is reinforced by the CSS paths in the source code.
College of Business Administration
The top, right corner of the page has a "BETA" icon I suppose because there are some terrible contrast problems with putting blue links on a grey background. I think I'd have preferred a an animated cartoon stick guy digging a hole. The layout is responsive but the entire business page has obviously not taken any direction or standards from the main site whatsoever. The site looks more like a design experiment gone-bad than something useful.
College of Engineering and Computer Science
Though the engineering and compsci college attempted to keep at least a few of the design elements from the main site, it is again implemented using a different content management system and as a whole, doesn't match the design of the main or business sites. By keeping the top-most bar from the main Wordpress site, they left enough breadcrumbs to be able to navigate to other parts of the university web presence without having to use the back button. Without that bar, "Home" still links back to the home of the college and "About Us" is specific to the college.
When I clicked from the main Wordpress-based site to one of the colleges, the college pages opened in a new tab in Chrome. This was a "feature" or workaround none of the other universities had implemented as a means to get back to the main page when the central university website developers apparently knew there would be a navigation issue.
Finally, UT Tyler is the university website I think other universities should use as the model of perfection. Judging from their main page, the school colors are navy, orange, and maybe white. I noted on the front page there are a lot of links, but what I love about the concept of the site is that it is not broken into colleges. From the very first page, in the main body, I'm able to scroll to the specific program of my interest and get more information about it. I also have options for other things I'd likely be interested in, like student life and costs. Navigating to "Academics" emphasizes programs according to undergraduate and graduate instead of going to a college website.
College of Business and Technology
After navigating to find information specific to the business college, I found that it was not its own subdomain, it doesn't use alternate software, it has no change of design, rather it's the same site. If I click from the business page on the main banner logo, I return to the main index page of the university. Navigation from the business college page to any other part of the university is exactly the same in the header as any other page on the website. When I navigate to the list of majors, they're accompanied by a link to the degree plan.
Engineering & Computer Science
It's still the same site, so I had to dig deeper here. Another amazing thing to discover was a list of undergraduate course syllabi! OMG. I can't tell you how many times I've been in a class where a teacher made their own website just so they could post the a syllabus and some powerpoint slides. If you want a course description, you don't have to be a registered student and login to a Peoplesoft site to see them, they're right there for anyone to read.
What I'm getting at with this analysis ultimately leads to UT Tyler as the model for how to build a university website. The students, especially undergrad, don't really care that the business and arts colleges are run by separate guys with separate budgets. Ultimately, it's still one university with one brand. Unify the image of the campus with a unified website.
There's more to it though. Think of the wasted resources between colleges who get asked to hire their own backend developer, a designer, a copywriter and duplicate all that effort in multiples across colleges only in the end to have a disjointed web presence, with searches that doesn't quite sync up, fonts that aren't shared, headers and footers with different meanings, home buttons that don't really mean anything.
Consider then that the managers of the college-level websites, turn into committees formed by members with mixed technical abilities and conflicting goals. There's no need to mandate a unified navigation header between college websites if all the colleges were part of the same website from the start. Pool the resources that would otherwise be split across colleges to hire a marketing team, to do focus groups on what students care about most when visiting a site, then feature that content. Make it easy to navigate from one critical marketing element like a preferred degree program to student life or general admissions.
Universities who continue the compartmentalization of colleges into their web strategy will forever have fighting between colleges and technology, inconsistent branding, and a poor experience for marketing to new students, as well as supporting enrolled students. This kind of change won't happen as a matter of agreement between a few colleges or between some committees. It needs to come from, with ongoing support, high level administration where you see titles like Vice President or Provost.