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The “ivory tower” of academia has become overshadowed by a new edifice on campus that is reaching ridiculous heights: The tower of mammon.
As public universities have been driven by budget whacking lawmakers to seek ever-more private funding, what were once centers of free-thinking are increasingly dominated by corporate sales gimmicks. “A lot of schools are taking a much more corporate approach,” exulted a PR executive who works with top administrators, marveling that “a C.M.O. didn’t even exist on most campuses 10 years ago.”
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A who? A chief marketing officer. Marketing what? As explained by the C.M.O. of the University of California system, “the changing funding landscape” requires universities to sell themselves to moneyed elites, which means academic institutions must rework what he calls “their visual identities.”
Forget intellectual pursuits, we’re talking about corporate branding, complete with the kind of ridiculous come-ons that hawkers of consumer products often barf-up. Iowa’s Drake University, for example, rebranded itself a couple of years ago with the slogan “Drake-plus.” That was intended to sell students and donors alike on the clever equation that Drake-plus-you would equal remarkable results – even excellence. This might have been an inane but innocuous bit of PR-puffery, except that the school’s marketing geniuses chose to reach for PR artistry, substituting the letter “D” to refer to Drake. Yes, that meant that the official brand they created to characterize their institution of higher learning was: “D+.” Not exactly a standard of academic excellence.
Educational achievement is not a product of marketers, but of… well, of educators. A school with plenty of good teachers will sell itself. So here’s a marketing concept: Fire the C.M.O. and hire a couple more teachers.
“Campus Protests Return, but Over Rebranding,” The New York Times, December 27, 2012.