Werbung über Alles

I don’t have too much to add to Wild Bill’s analysis of recent statements summarizing the business of a college’s board of trustees. Before I add my not-much, I will acknowledge that it is probably to the credit of academic freedom that Wild Bill and I may critically analyze such statements without being fired–yet. Also, as I was in on the ground floor of this blog, I know neither of us thought that the university’s use of language would be a primary (or secondary or tertiary) object of analysis.

But, as Wild Bill implies, when a university is this unabashed about “branding”–and when there are consultants out there who help universities and colleges “brand” shows that “branding” is a (the?) trend–it stands to reason that a blog about politics and language and Orwellian concerns would be tempted to weigh in, especially when the bloggers work at the institution.

The not-much I have to add is mostly an echo: when what seems like the main business of a trustees’ meeting is to discuss advertising, and when the statements about advertising (“branding”) mention the university’s “values,” the irony really is too rich. Similarly, when a college builds new dorms (residence halls)–as many have these days–and then creates programs to induce students to keep living on campus and then attempts to link this strategy to “values,” without admitting that the dorms pay for themselves and that more students on campus means more dollars in the coffers, then the stuff about values, once again, becomes suspect.

I would also add that if the university–any university or college–really wanted to play this corporate-advertising game, it would get more hard-headed about competing in “the market.” The problem is that most small liberal arts colleges say the same things about themselves, more or less. While they’re saying the same things, more or less, they will also claim how distinctive they are. I’ve said and written as much to people at the university, and I even had a business professor tell me I was on the right track. (I was astonished.) Basically, he said that if you’ve been in business for a long time, to continue to thrive you have to buy up some competitors (not an option with colleges) or differentiate what you offer from what “they” offer.

So that even if elements of the rhetoric Wild Bill analyzed weren’t preposterous and even if the contrast between “values” and “branding” weren’t so embarrassing, the strategy itself would look bad. I think the university has fallen for another scam. Before it advertises (or brands) it should come up with some real stuff that makes it different from the hundreds of other small colleges and their “values” and claims to distinctiveness. To echo Al Davis, the late owner of the Oakland Raiders (who, by the way, have the most distinctive “brand” in the NFL), “Just be distinctive, baby.”

How? Well, it’s not up to me, but since you asked, if I were a liberal arts college, I’d stop pretending that getting a job isn’t important to graduating seniors and their families. Sure, sure, every college has an employment and career office, and they all do good work. But I’m talking about making employment something departments have to think about as they plan their curricula and something students have to start thinking about more seriously at least two years before they graduate. And I’d craft an argument for why “liberal arts” and gainful employment go hand in hand, rather than recycling old arguments about the liberal arts making you flexible. I’d dare to be practical, in other words.

I’d also hit the race-thing head on. Most liberal arts colleges are still lily-white. They makes some noise about diversity, but they don’t follow through very well–for a variety of reasons, including “branding,” I fear. Again, I’d go contrarian and make “my” college more diverse more quickly and be known for that, instead of hanging back with the white pack.

But my main point is that when you get into the “branding” game, the game of liberal arts may already be over, but if it isn’t over, you’d better have something to advertise that’s different from every other liberal arts college, or you’re going to get taken by another consultant.

New branding-strategies aren’t going to address the several crises threatening higher education in general and expensive, insular, and insulated liberal arts colleges in particular.

“Dinosauria, we,” as poet Charles Bukowski phrased a similar problem.

Thanks to Wild Bill for wading in first–and much more effectively.

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One Response to “Werbung über Alles”

  1. wildbillhaltom Says:

    Love Dr. Ostrom’s elegant explanation of the downward spiral of marketing, which accomplishes little except to divert trustees and to enrich consultants. Nothing changes except the subtitles, so we have all seen this movie before.


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