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IN MY OPINION

The emptiness of branding universities for “success”

As a student, I was pleased to be part of a school where we at least allegedly strived to serve each other and society.

By SUE SORENSEN | August 17, 2016

The summer months mark that point in the year when many of us finally get around to doing some reading, an activity that professors are ostensibly able to do all the time. Among the items piled up in my office are several issues of University Affairs. Todd Pettigrew’s essay in the March issue, “Words to learn by: the case for the unheralded university motto,” particularly resonated with me. In it, he happily notes that the founders of the University of New Brunswick were sufficiently bold to attach a notion of “daring wisdom” (Sapere Aude) to their school. “Strong societies have needs that do not apply to any individual and cannot be met by the marketplace,” Dr. Pettigrew writes. I was equally thrilled to read his assertion that we need “skeptics, iconoclasts and visionaries.”

Dr. Pettigrew’s article reminded me of Albert Braz’s 2012 essay, also published by University Affairs, “In praise of literature.” Dr. Braz urges those of us who teach English to acknowledge that professing literature is an act of faith. And today, I read with appreciation Melonie Fullick’s recent “Speculative Diction” column on the failings of university websites, one of which is the excessive emphasis on marketing demonstrated on most of our institutions’ sites.

These pieces collided for me in a helpful way with recent contemplation of the way my own university describes itself. I think back to a winter meeting where our faculty considered whether one of our stated commitments (“generous hospitality, radical dialogue”) was a communications hindrance. The troublesome word, in a terror-conscious and increasingly polarized society, was of course “radical.” I was one of a large group of faculty members that argued to retain it in our institutional vocabulary.

One might ask whether people really pay attention to vision statements, but when I was a student at the University of Regina I was very aware of its motto, “As One Who Serves.” Like many university mottos, it has biblical origins (Luke 22:27). I’m pleased when secular institutions retain even a tiny remnant of their religious foundations, because it’s important to know where you come from. More stimulating, however, was the principle of service – I was pleased to be part of a school where we were at least allegedly striving to serve each other and society, rather than the seemingly more common quest nowadays for “success.”

200px-Uof_Winnepeg_CoA.svgIt’s hard to imagine in our market-conscious century an institution that would readily adopt now “As One Who Serves” or embrace the motto of the University of Winnipeg (Lux et Veritas Floreant, “Let light and truth flourish”). The proffered adage of the place where I did my graduate degrees, University of British Columbia, is, regrettably, more in tune with our era of me-oriented branding. The UBC motto (Tuum est: either “It’s yours” or “It’s up to you”) disappoints me with its individualism. The phrase also suffers from the vagueness of so much contemporary marketing (what is “it”?).

I have always been worried about the language of marketing, but recently it seems to me more degraded than ever. I have watched with sadness the proliferation of “wealth management” firms, appealing to a more venal aspect of my nature than the term “financial planning” ever did; I spot more “active living centres,” places that could be endorsing, it appears to me, practically anything. Perhaps George Orwell wrote to no purpose his essay, “Politics and the English Language.” His counsels about meaningless words that contribute to a society’s “reduced state of consciousness” now look more like prescription than proscription.

In this linguistically impaired period of history, universities need to hold on to our idealistic words of mission and develop even bolder statements of purpose and being. If we don’t talk about commitment, dissent, justice, open inquiry, insight, compassion and a host of other possibly embarrassing but still vital values, then who will? We should be cautious about alliances with the world of “branding.” The tactics of the brand come from the strictly commercial world with which, yes, we are associated but from which we must nevertheless be distinct.

I would love it if words like “impertinent,” “disruptive” and “complicate” would turn up in our educational manifestos, but I doubt that’s going to happen. What could happen, however, is that we preserve, rehabilitate and share more vibrantly our knowledge of what it means, for example, to be involved in “argument” or “criticism.” These are concepts central to what I do as an English professor, but lately my students are (distressingly) inclined to misunderstand these terms, failing to grasp how imperative they are to the scholarly adventure.

At my university, some folks have been uncomfortable for years with a tagline claiming we are “innovative.” But I’m good with that. I would rather grapple with the frustrating but hopefully revolutionary problems of genuine (not market-driven) innovation than mobilize knowledge systems for tomorrow’s achievers. Looking over a list of university mottos, my eye falls on Trent University’s Nunc Cognosco ex Parte (“Now I know in part”). This probably causes headaches for their marketing people, but I hope they don’t scrap it. In that slogan (and, yes, it has a religious origin that shouldn’t be forgotten) I hear reality and humility, which I’d rather encounter any day than a pitiless rhetoric of conquest and success.

Sue Sorensen is an associate professor of English at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg.

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  1. Hans G. Schuetze / August 18, 2016 at 3:57 am

    UBC’s “Tuum est” stressed, long before it became fashionable, students’ engagement with the university and the community (of British Columbia, not just Vancouver). So it did express the need for personal involvement and community service.

    Compare this original motto with the new one, designed for marketing purposes about ten years ago, “A Place of Mind”. It makes, before the backdrop of photos with the coastal mountains and the sea, for an estethically pleasing ad or poster but is almost devoid of any meaning of purpose or principle.

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