If colleges understand themselves to be selling a consumer product, the marketplace will determine their identity.
Perhaps no aspect of the recent tax bill excited more commentary and consternation than the provisions concerning higher education.
This would include the taxing of endowments (about which I have written previously, here and here) and the tuition waivers of graduate students. The latter yields such a slight haul that one can’t help but suspect it’s a vindication of the charge that the Republicans were going after universities for ideological reasons.
There’s something to the charge, but not for the reason that critics think.
Granted, there are many arguments to be made against the “tenured radicals,” or concerns to be expressed about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Concerns over “identity politics” and lack of “viewpoint diversity” are valid.
They also overlook what is the central affliction of modern university life: corporatization. And in this sense the Republican tax plan provides some coherence, for it attempts (probably unsuccessfully) to get corporations to pay more money (I know the plan lowers the corporate rate, but it does so in the hope it would increase household income and keep companies from “offshoring” profits).
In other words, one way to read the tax plan is that the Republicans are simply acknowledging the reality that universities regard themselves as corporations.
In my past two articles I’ve touched upon ways in which nonprofits have mimicked the conduct of corporations. Here, I wish to draw attention to two other ways they have done so: branding, and administration.
I will use as my example, and it’s not an exceptional one, my Alma Mater Calvin College. It may be that there was an office of Marketing with Branding guidelines when I was a student there in the 80’s (although I doubt it), but scant attention was paid to it. Professors who were there then have no memory of it now. What we did have when I was a student there were excellent professors who knew their stuff and taught it well. We had a logo we took some pride in, but in the main we went to Calvin because of its tradition. Indeed, I never even visited the campus before matriculating. Some might have considered Calvin “parochial,” immersed in church politics and defending a particular orthodoxy, but it is also what made Calvin “distinctive.”
Did Calvin lose its distinctiveness because it became obsessed with branding or did it become obsessed with branding because it lost its distinctiveness? Or are they unrelated? I can’t really say.
What I can say is that a school that unapologetically sustained a tradition shifted its emphasis to be like all the other schools “with a difference” (which meant a difference that didn’t really matter). The core curriculum got hollowed out. Admissions standards were watered down. A school that had provided an excellent liberal arts education inflated to 127 majors and programs with the concomitant incoherence and balkanization. (That’s one major or program for every 30 students. In general, a liberal arts college should have no more than 20 such majors and programs.)
The more Calvin lost its way, the more obsessed it became with marketing and branding. One way to understand this is to see how monolithic school “mission statements” have become.
Here, the aimless turn to “best practices” and hire a company that is helping all the other schools angle themselves in the marketplace. In other words, the firm is an agent of homogenization. Read the “branding” documents of any college and notice how identical they are to each other with the only difference school colors and the picture on the logo. If the corporate identity is lost on anyone, Calvin makes it clear with a pictorial comparison of their logo with Nike’s and Coca-Cola’s. No false modesty there!
Calvin compensates for the flatness of this approach by attributing characteristics to their colors. The combination of maroon and gold, we are told, accompanied by “the newness and energy of a supportive palette,” “communicate Calvin’s story of discovery and fearless investigation.” Any sane person would call this pure gobbledegook, but in the world of higher education this is what counts for distinctiveness.
This can only compel people who believe that how you sell something is more important than what you’re selling. Of course, whatever else you do you have to have the three-word tagline, and since no one will likely use the same three words you’re probably in the clear on “distinctiveness.”
The corporate model affects the administrative structure of the college (which I’ll address in my next essay) as well as what takes place in the classroom.
Knowledge is commodified; students are regarded as “consumers” of this knowledge, but mainly as paying customers who are purchasing a credential that favors them in the labor market. Schools “compete” for these students by “selling” themselves, first through branding offices, but then through artificial means such as “rankings.”
When Calvin was ranked 118th in national liberal arts colleges by USNews, the administration refused to reference this in any of their promotional material. But they didn’t sit on their hands. Instead, they successfully petitioned to be recategorized as a “Regional College, Midwest” where their number 1 ranking immediately made its way into the promotional material, including very large billboards on highways. That it’s the same college, no better or worse, didn’t seem to matter. Appearances are what matter.
Mind you, I’m not opposed to marketing or administration. Nonprofits need to survive, and they need to be well-run. But commodification and sales are insidious, and in the case of education don’t just represent its unique activities but alters them. The medium is the message. When schools understand themselves to be a seller of a consumer product, the marketplace will determine their identity, and the thing that makes them interesting will be lost, as will a good and worthwhile education.