U is a brand, too

This depressing article on colleges hiring consultants to cook up focus group-tested mottos/slogans (hat tip: A&L Daily) reminds me of a good friend’s experience with this idiotic but somehow essential and very American practice of university branding. My friend was in his first tenure-track job at what I will call Floundering University – and is happily elsewhere now – when the school’s president informed faculty that the university had a new motto, or slogan, or catch phrase, or branding thingy: “Floundering University: The Leader in Global Education.” (Globalism was hot at the time. Roughly what “Green” is now. They must be kicking themselves.) Once this branding thingy was breathlessly unveiled, the university’s president asked faculty to help him flesh out this term, “Global Education.” In other words, he asked his (deeply depressed) faculty to tell him what he meant by his own slogan. Perhaps he was hoping to be swept up in the semiotic process limned in Don Delillo’s White Noise, whereby things take on the real character of the tropes incidentally attached to them.(Driving through a run-down small town, e.g., the main character notices “an old Moorish movie theater, now, remarkably, a mosque.”) But it was probably too much to ask of even the most transformative postmodern sign system for Floundering U. to become a, much less the, leader in “Global Education” just because some college functionary decided to call it that. It’s tempting to say that he was simply lying, but then you can’t really say he asserted that Floundering U. was something he knew it wasn’t because, upon calling it that, he didn’t even know what that was, the thing his university was suddenly the leader in.