Saturday, November 1, 2014

University Brands

Harry Frankfurt wrote a terrific piece on bullshit a while back, which you should try to read if you never have (here). Frankfurt distinguishes bullshitting from outright lying by noting that lying cares about the truth (it endorses the opposite), while BS's distinctive quality is a total disregard for it. Unlike lies which need to be well crafted and worry about consistency, BS is something you keep throwing until something sticks, and the things that stick need not be all of a piece. Though he does not say so outright, Frankfurt's essay hints that we live in the age of BS and that BS is even harder to counter than lies.

I think that there is a lot of truth to this. BS is everywhere. And in particular it has hit academia, and its associated institutions hard.  I have discussed this before (here).  BS has a fancy name, it's called marketing, with the heart of marketing being advertising and branding.  Every university now has a marketing department (which is generally far larger than the linguistics department) whose job it is to promote the achievements of the university. Rankings matter, self-promotion matters, grants matter, philanthropy matters and all of this is greased by advertising, brand loyalty and a general BS industry. It's everywhere, all the time and ever growing. 

Before getting to the main event, I should add, that the motives behind this trend might in fact be noble. Universities, the NSF, NIH, NEH, Science, Nature, Journals, etc are likely feeling the financial pinch brought on by the triumph of lucre as the measure of all things (yes, I am glowing a bit pink here). But, the fact that these measure may be necessary in this day and age does not preclude their serving to undermine the aims of the institutions in whose service they are being deployed. Put crudely, universities and their ancillary institutions should be in the business of exposing BS not promoting it.

Ok, enough of me. All of this is by way of intro to a more thoughtful disquisition on these matters by John Quiggin. He is an economist in Australia who wrote a great book on zombie economic ideas (here).  At any rate, he has this piece on the above topic that you might find interesting. The first couple of paragraphs adverts to the case of the Warwick professor suspended for irony (here), but it picks up steam and identifies how branding has become a focus of university activity. This is certainly an important activity in the universities that I am familiar with. Indeed, a large part of the MOOCs industry/hysteria was driven by the idea every major university needed its own brand of MOOC (partly to cash in and partly not to be left behind). Quiggin ends his useful piece as follows:

Branding, as applied to higher education, is nonsense. Colleges are disparate communities of scholars (both teachers and students) whose collective identity is largely a fiction, handy during football season but of little relevance to the actual business of teaching and research. The suggestion that a common letterhead and slogan can “present an image to the world of a multifaceted, but unified, institution” is comforting to university managers but bears no correspondence to reality.

The idea of universities as corporate owners of brands is directly at odds with what John Henry Newman called “the Idea of a University.” To be sure, that idea is the subject of contestation and debate, but in all its forms it embodies the ideal of advancing knowledge through free discussion rather than burnishing the image of a corporation. In the end, brands and universities belong to different worlds.

BS does not belong in academia. But, I fear it is here to stay. The more pressing question then is how to keep it from seeping into every part of intellectual life. Sadly, I have few ideas about how to prevent this.

1 comment:

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