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Marketing universities is big business

A new fad is sweeping across America's university campuses -- and it's seriously goofy.

This latest craze is not led by students making a cultural statement, but by top administrators trying to make a corporate one. It's called "rebranding," an attempt to modernize the image of venerable institutions by adopting corporate-style logos, slogans, and other marketing fluff.

For example, for 144 years, the University of California has thrived under an official seal featuring a bright star beaming onto an open book, with a banner proclaiming: "Let there be light." Straightforward and rather elegant.

But it's so old-school, cried the rebranders, so out of sync with today's market-oriented world -- especially now that universities are multibillion-dollar, conglomeratized enterprises run, not by academicians, but by highly paid executives whose chief role is to charm money out of wealthy individuals and corporate benefactors.

Forget light. "Let there be money" is the new academic aspiration.

Thus, the UC system was rebranded with an abstract, U-shaped logo with the letter "C" subtly burned into it. It looks very much like a logo for a bank -- and that's the point, for it's meant to impress money people.

"The university needed to do a better job and a more proactive job in telling its story to Californians," explained Jason Simon, UC's marketing communications director.

Yes, and what better way to do that than by resorting to PR artifice and corporate gobbledygook, right? All you need to know about where universities are "headed" is that their latest administrative fad is to hire people like Simon as their CMO. Their what? Chief marketing officer.

The good news is that students overwhelmingly prefer light to marketing. More than 50,000 outraged students signed an online petition protesting UC's corporatized logo, forcing officials there to withdraw it.

OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer and public speaker. He's editor of the Hightower Lowdown.