Evolving Web: Your University CMS Doesn’t Have to Suck

…but let’s face it, it probably does.

Universities are fascinating and strange creatures to build content management systems for:

  • They tend to have the legacy content and inertia of a large governmental organization.
  • They’re often structured as many medium-sized enterprises aligned in a loose federation.
  • They have dozens or hundreds of people who need to create and post content to the website every semester.
  • They have many different audiences for their content: current and prospective students, parents, alumni, staff, and so on.

It can be daunting to choose the right CMS for a university: what’s the winning set of features? How can the staff use the CMS with a minimum of training? What’s the capex and opex cost of ownership? 

It’s easy to get it wrong and end up stuck with a CMS that sucks.

This framework should help you avoid that terrible fate. Let’s start with the conclusion and then discuss the why and what of it later, in case you don’t like to scroll:

🏆 Best overall university CMS: Drupal

🏆 Best closed-source university CMS: Webflow

🏆 Best small-scale university CMS: WordPress

This list won’t be without controversy, but read on below for why each of these 3 made the cut (and maybe why your favourite one didn’t.)

How to evaluate CMS options

All modern content management systems have a few things in common:

  • A skilled CMS developer can design basically anything with them.
  • They give you control of your content publishing system so that you can control who publishes what and when.
  • They have an application that makes it easy for non-technical users to create, edit, and publish content.

📚 Read next: How schools succeed with Drupal


But what questions will help you choose the right platform for your specific organizational needs? 

Content management system scorecard

Here’s our pick for a quick grading rubric to choose a university CMS (all questions graded on a 1 – 5 scale).

➡️ Want to use our scorecard for your own CMS evaluation? Download the printable PDF version, or copy this Google doc to your Drive to edit it.

CMS Name: ___________________________________

Admin criteria

  1. How easy is it to build & control user permissions in a manner similar to existing departments? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  2. How secure is the platform? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  3. How easy is it to upgrade? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  4. How good is the documentation/community? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜

Functionality criteria

  1. What core features does it offer natively?
    1. Multisite? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
    2. Publisher permissions? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
    3. Search? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
    4. Other features (mailing software, forum, multilingual support, etc.) ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  2. How extensible is the platform with other features you may want later? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  3. What performance & load times can the platform deliver with thousands of pages ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜

Adaptability criteria

  1. How customizable is the UI for writers? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  2. Is it easily modified and extended? Is it open source? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  3. Can it be used in a variety of web services (e.g. a hosted service / a do it yourself installation / a managed service)? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜

The verdict: DotCMS vs. Drupal vs. Webflow vs. Widen vs. WordPress

We looked at 5 top CMS platforms and did the scoring for you.

  DotCMS Drupal Webflow Widen WordPress
Admin 85% 90% 85% 70% 90%
Features 75% 70% 95% 60% 65%
Adaptability 30% 100% 15% 60% 100%
Overall 63% 87% 65% 63% 85%

Drupal beats out the competition narrowly on security and user permissions control, but WordPress offers excellent usability and an easier upgrade system. Both open source projects have robust and active communities keeping them maintained and alive.


📺 Watch on demand: 5 keys to success with Drupal for higher ed [webinar recording]


A surprise winner, especially for smaller institutions that are willing to go closed source, is Webflow. Launched in 2013, this relative newcomer brings high performance pages, a user-friendly publisher experience, and an impressive community and integrations library to the table, but it lacks some of the granular permissions controls out of the box. It’s also only available from Webflow itself, as it isn’t open source.

Choosing a CMS for a university is a long process, and one that frequently takes search committees months or years to make a decision. This post can’t do a full search justice, but it’s based on the research and work we’ve done with universities like Princeton, Emory, University of Waterloo, and dozens of other higher education institutions across North America over the last decade.

Questions? Comments? Wanna start a flame war? Hit us up on Twitter at @evolvingweb and we’ll be happy to talk. 🙂
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