Brands of Nonsense

by John Quiggin on October 31, 2014

That’s the title of a piece of mine the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a little while ago. It’s paywalled but they have graciously given me permission to republish it here.

A little while ago, the University of Warwick was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Its longstanding legal firm, SGH Martineau, put up a blog post suggesting that universities should take action against “insubordinate” academics with “outspoken opinions.” The firm stressed the importance of making an example of offenders whose academic work was “brilliant,” lest other employees become tempted to emulate them.

Unfortunately for Warwick, this suggestion was made at precisely the time the university was seeking to remove an insubordinate professor, whose alleged offenses included “sighing” and “irony during job interviews”, though it appears his real offense was criticism of the British government’s higher-education policy.

The law firm’s post was couched in terms of the possibility of damage to the university’s “brand.” Universities have always been rightly concerned about their reputations. But the conversion in recent years to the language of branding has reached a fever pitch. Of course, in Warwick’s case, both the proposal to muzzle academics and the marketing-speak used to justify it did enough damage to offset, for some time, the efforts of its entire central-administration communications team, which employs almost 30 people, not to mention similar personnel in various schools and departments.

In Australia, Monash University proudly announced this year that it was the first organization in the world to acquire a “brand” top-level domain name—that is, an Internet address ending in “.monash” rather than the previous “monash.edu.au.” This trivial change cost $180,000, plus an annual fee of $25,000, and is part of the university’s expensively maintained “brand identity policy.”

In America, the University of Pennsylvania was an early adopter of this approach. In 2002 the Pennsylvania Gazette celebrated its centenary with a history titled “Building Penn’s Brand.” What might Penn’s most eminent sociologist, Erving Goffman (author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life), have made of this adoption of the language of image and “brand”?

Many American universities now have branding policies, and some affirm an unqualified commitment to the associated marketing ideology. The University of Florida, for example states on its website:

“The importance of having a clear, recognizable brand can never be overstated. It defines us, separates us and communicates our relevance and value. It is especially important in an environment as vast and decentralized as the University of Florida. Thousands of messages leave the university every day, and each represents an opportunity to enhance—or fragment—our image. By maintaining consistent standards, we capitalize on the enormous volume of communications we generate and we present an image to the world of a multifaceted, but unified, institution.”

That statement summarizes all the key points of the ideology of branding. First there is the emphasis on image without any reference to an underlying reality. Second there is the assumption that the university should be viewed as a corporate institution rather than as a community. Third there is the desire to subordinate the efforts of individual scholars in research, extension, and community engagement to the enhancement of the corporate image. And finally there is the emphasis on distinctiveness and separateness. The University of Florida does not want to seem part of a global community of higher education, but rather as a competitor in a crowded marketplace.

Before considering this process further, we need some context. The authority on the history of the corporation and of brands is Alfred D. Chandler, whose books Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise (MIT Press, 1962), The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Harvard University Press, 1977), and Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (Harvard University Press, 1990) are the definitive studies of the rise of the managerial corporation.

Chandler emphasizes the emergence of packaged and branded goods. Until the late 19th century, products like foodstuffs were sold in bulk by wholesalers, then measured out by retailers to individual customers. At every stage there were opportunities to increase profits by passing off a cheaper alternative for the good being sold. Shopkeepers’ reputations were the primary warranty. In the increasingly urban and mobile environment of the late 19th century, reputation, never a fully effective seal of quality, became even less so.

Branded products provided a solution. Now it was possible for consumers to repeatedly buy the same brand of product at various stores. The brand was a guarantee of consistent quality, not because of the trustworthiness of the corporation (of which the buyers would typically know nothing), but because its value depended on consistency and quality.

Consistency was the more important of the two. A low-quality product, provided that it was consistently adequate and appropriately priced, could benefit just as much from a brand as a higher-quality, more expensive alternative could. Indeed, the wealthy were the last to embrace branded products, instead patronizing bespoke tailors and personal providers of food and other services long after the middle and working classes were used to doing their shopping at Macy’s and A&P.

The great marketing discovery of the 20th century, pioneered by the advertising titan J. Walter Thompson, was that brands could do much more than guarantee a consistent level of objective quality. With the right advertising, a brand could come to embody connotations of all kinds, unrelated to the qualities of the product to which it was attached. Femininity or masculinity, luxury or solid good sense, excitement or security—all of these and more are part of “image.”

A third form of brand value arises when there are strong forces for customer “loyalty,” amounting, in some cases, to “lock-in.” For example, anyone who wants to use computers of designs descended from the IBM PC has little choice but to buy Microsoft operating systems like Windows.

And now we come to what may be the most striking feature of branding in higher education. Universities are corporate bodies, but they predate commercial corporations by many centuries. Long before the advent of packaged and branded goods, universities were certifying the quality of their students through the awarding of degrees.

Many criticisms of corporate branding apply equally to university degrees, and much of the voluminous literature on “credentialism” could be translated into the language of branding. The aim of degrees is, after all, to certify quality in the sense that a student has completed a course of study and acquired the associated knowledge and reasoning skills. And, as with brands that involve monopoly power, many degrees gain value from the fact that they are required for entry to particular professions. On the other hand, and with notable exceptions like the M.B.A., there has been little consistent effort to promote “brand image” to potential employers. Like a 19th-century brand, the degree has, in large part, gained its value from graduates rather than vice versa.

The rise of corporate-style branding has gone hand in hand with the devaluation of degrees through grade inflation. Grades in the A range have become the norm at leading universities. Reports that Princeton might roll back attempts to cap the proportion of A’s at 35 percent cite administrators’ fears that the policy discourages potential applicants and students’ complaints that it hurts their chances of getting jobs, fellowships, or spots in graduate or professional schools.

The “brand value” or “brand equity” of a company can be estimated as the intangible capital, beyond the company’s actual earnings, that may arise, as Chandler suggests, in three ways:

* The company is known to produce goods and services of a higher quality than competitors of similar cost (or similar quality at lower cost). Remember? That’s the 19th-century notion of brand.

* The brand reflects intangible attributes, through advertising, in the minds of consumers. That’s the early 20th century notion.

* A brand’s component products work best together or with those made by partner brands. That’s the late-20th-century lock-in notion.

It is appropriate, therefore, that the world’s most valuable brand is Apple, because it hits the trifecta. It is widely perceived as the highest-quality and most consistently innovative maker of computing devices. Its products carry a cachet of sophistication emphasized by the famous “I’m a Mac … and I’m a PC” ads. And (except for a brief period in the 1990s when Macintosh “clones” were marketed on a small scale) anyone who wants to use Apple operating systems has to buy an Apple device, and vice versa.

How do those concepts apply to universities and, in particular, to undergraduate education, which remains the core business of most of these institutions?

The 19th-century notion of quality is established in the minds of students, parents, and just about everybody else. In fact, it is so well established that rankings of leading universities have barely changed since the hierarchy was established, in the second half of the 19th century. A blog post by the sociologist Kieran Healy on Crooked Timber compares a ranking produced in 1911 with the most recent U.S. News rankings and finds a close correlation (except that elite private universities, as a group, have improved their status relative to state flagships).

In that sense, then, university brands are strong. But brand relativities that endure regardless of the competence of university leaders, the vagaries of scholars and departments, and the efforts of marketing departments are not really of much interest.

None of this is to say that there are no differences in quality among those captured by these very stable rankings. At any given time, the quality of departments in any university will vary widely. Some will be making great strides in teaching and research. Others will be riven by internal divisions, or wedded to outdated and discredited approaches to pedagogy and research methodology. But there is no way to discover such things from branding exercises at the university level.

Key branding efforts focus on intangibles. In this respect, university branding has been an embarrassing failure both by the industrial standards of the advertising sector and by the intellectual standards that universities are supposed to uphold. For example, virtually every Australian university has adopted (replacing the Latinate motto that used to adorn its crest) a branding slogan: “Know more. Do more.” “Where brilliant begins”. Good luck trying to match a particular slogan with its respective university. (Disclosure: I am, perhaps, bitter that my own proposed branding slogan—”UQ, a university not a brand”—did not find favor with my institution’s marketing department.)

Finally there is the question of lock-in. A university degree is a required ticket for entry to many professions, and where state-level licensing applies, the range of choices may be limited. At the top end, access to various elite jobs is confined largely to the products of Ivy League and similarly elite institutions. That is a form of lock-in that adds to “brand value,” but in a socially unproductive way.

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.


John Quiggin is a fellow in economics at the University of Queensland, in Australia; a columnist for The Australian Financial Review; a blogger for Crooked Timber; and the author of Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Princeton University Press, 2010).

{ 135 comments }

1

ZM 10.31.14 at 6:02 am

The university I go to has as its branding slogan a translation of the Latin motto. It’s not a very accurate translation as far as I can tell, although I don’t know latin so maybe people who know latin would be able to judge the translation better. Part of the problem is to do with the choice of Latin motto anyhow. Some say Redmond Barry – who was the judge that hanged our bushranger Ned Kelly then died soon after – chose the motto and the shield, but it is not recorded for sure anywhere as far as I know.

The problem with the latin motto is that it is three words, but they are taken from a whole sentence from an ode of Horace’s (his famous monument ode). The three words make much more sense put back in their whole sentence and then back into the ode – not just left alone on the shield. So the university’s poor translation of the motto into modern english really misses quite a bit of the meaning of the motto – since scholars would have used to know latin and understand the motto in its context. What is most annoying about the poor translation is Horace’s ode is all about part of himself escaping death and being there for people in the future – but the university’s poor English translation just ignores this, when it should be highlighting it so as the university community always has their duty to future generations in the forefront of their thoughts and teaching and learning.

This would remind all the professors they must consider the impact of their work on future generations and make their teachings very sustainable.

On the university being made up of disparate scholars having free discussion – this is not quite correct. The Provost has the job of centring all the university’s various works so all the teachings are for the good and keep within government and university statutes regulating the teachings of the university. I think current Provosts have some way to go to achieve this great duty, probably they are in need of some guidance by the Visitors.

2

ZM 10.31.14 at 6:11 am

Having grumbled, I did just look at the 2014 report on the brand/motto – and it does start with Horace and a translation of his ode , and of their three grand challenges fostering sustainability is one. But the provost still needs to enforce the meeting of this grand challenge by the professors more stringently.

3

Moz in Oz 10.31.14 at 7:52 am

Nothing beats “Absolutely Positively University” the unofficial slogan of Victoria University of Wellington, given after the branding of the city as “absolutely positively Wellington”. Although “UQ: home of JQ” comes close.

Branding… I prefer the traditional sort, done with hot irons to marketroids.

4

Andrew Fisher 10.31.14 at 8:17 am

“Colleges are disparate communities of scholars (both teachers and students) whose collective identity is largely a fiction”

I find it interesting how often criticism of modern university management ultimately turns on statements like this which, understood empirically, are obviously false and, understood normatively, obviously wicked. Whose interest does this particular brand of nonsense serve?

5

reason 10.31.14 at 8:40 am

1. When people are considering where to study, they look at courses not universities. The brand of the university as a whole is pretty close to irrelevant.
2. It is not surprising that brand rankings of universities change slowly – there is strong reverse causality. A university (or more accurately courses within that university) with a good reputation attracts the best students.

6

reason 10.31.14 at 8:42 am

Andrew Fisher @4
You are obviously looking for a fight, why? And if you want to be controversial why have you not attempted to justify your opinion?

7

reason 10.31.14 at 8:47 am

Andrew Fisher @4
Seriously wicked? And doesn’t your interpretation hang precipitously on your enterpretation of the word “fiction”?

8

reason 10.31.14 at 8:53 am

P.S. I come from a family with 3 primary degrees from U of Sydney, 1 from Macquarie, 1 from U of New England and 1 from U of Newcastle. Each was chosen by first choosing what to study and then looking at what the various Universities offered (considering convenience as well). I tend to agree with JQ.

9

Best Stay Anonymous 10.31.14 at 9:52 am

I showed a banker friend the motto associated with my employer: “We are Exceptional” and they laughed heartily before announcing that “I would never employ someone from that place.”

Our marketing department is, I conclude, staffed by witty anti-capitalists determined to overthrow the system from within.

10

John Quiggin 10.31.14 at 10:17 am

@4 As reason says, this seems bizarrely over the top. So much so that it’s hard to imagine it coming from anyone but a university manager.

11

Zamfir 10.31.14 at 10:36 am

@best stay anon: your employer doesn’t make software, I hope?

12

Andrew Fisher 10.31.14 at 10:43 am

Reason@7

I confess I am in a bad mood this morning, but yes, wicked. Let’s leave the managers and marketing people out of it for the moment and just talk about cleaners and technicians. Is their labour necessary to the success of the enterprise? Obviously. So why are they excluded from the community if they are performing work which is necessary to the community’s existence? Whose interest does it serve to define the University in this exclusionary way? Plainly not that of the disadvantaged.

I think it is possible to have a response to the Docherty affair that recognises that whilst he, himself, seems to be innocent (albeit this only became clear very recently), the issue of misogyny in the academy is a real one. I don’t usually praise the Times Higher, but this piece makes that point well http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/suspension-is-a-feminist-issue/2016601.article. Pieces like the OP which explicitly pooh-pooh the accusation itself (regardless of its truth or falsity) ought surely to cause offence to all non-misogynists. Whose interest does it serve to dismiss such concerns as inherently ridiculous?

I am not particularly looking for a fight, I’m just crotchety and disappointed, so I’ll go away now.

13

Andrew Fisher 10.31.14 at 10:54 am

John@10

Didn’t see your post before writing my resonse to Reason above. Yes I am a university manager but as I hope my response to Reason made clear it is not that I think University management above criticism (far from it), only that I think the allegations made against Docherty were actually serious.

Of course raising serious allegations that turn out not to be true doesn’t necessarily show university managers in a better light. But it must be possible to criticise University managers without belittling the bystanders.

I said I would go away so I will.

14

Alan Baumler 10.31.14 at 11:45 am

“Colleges are disparate communities of scholars (both teachers and students) whose collective identity is largely a fiction”

I would actually disagree with this in certain contexts. Yes, if you are going on to grad school all that really matters is the department and, really, the people you worked with.

If, like most people, you are planning to go for four years and then leave the academic world there really is a brand. My daughter is getting all sorts of stuff in the mail telling her that what she chooses will mark her for life. Academics can collect lots of degrees, but just like you can only have one first marriage you can only be an undergrad once. If you choose to go to the University of Chicago (Where fun goes to die) or to WE ARE (boom boom) PENN STATE. it will mark you socially for the rest of your life.

There is obviously a lot of marketing bs. in all this, but you can’t sell things if nobody is buying. I think it might help more to think about how to interject some of what academics think a university is for into this process, rather than just throwing our hands up, although I confess I have no idea how to do that.

15

BenK 10.31.14 at 12:07 pm

Without attempting to be nit-picking, I would disagree that the MBA is the only degree sold as a brand itself. In fact, the big struggles surrounding the MD are the classic case of the branded degree. You could argue that it was the profession, not the degree, but you would be wrong – the evidence there is the DO. Less strong evidence is where the degree and profession more significantly overlap; attacks on pharmacists, nurses, physician’s assistants, and all other forms of healthcare not involving student loan repayments to a medical school producing MDs.

16

Trader Joe 10.31.14 at 12:29 pm

I think I understand the point JQ is trying to make, but speaking as a consumer of university services rather than as part of an institution (which is a little different slant than the one JQ seems to be taking) – the branding does make a difference.

When I contemplate spending $100-200k to send my children to some sort of public or private university, I’d like to believe that once they hopefully successfully complete their course of study, the degree they will have earned will have an enduring value that will help open a few doors and be recognized as “a good degree” by those who would seek to place a value on it.

While there may be some qualitative difference in what someone might learn at “relatively unknown small rural private school” and “Big State U” the nuances are probably lost on most employers. No doubt there are some technical courses of study where a particular school has a distinct advantage, but for the majority of majors and degrees its going to be a nuanced distinction.

Yes, I’d like my kids to go to a school that “fits” and where they can pursue their educational aspirations, but at the end of the day a key purpose of earning that credential is to convert it into a vocation – whatever that might be. When the employer sees the brand of Big State U, they have a branded impression of what the student has accomplished and some of the experiences they may have had – perhaps not a correct impression, but an impression nonetheless. When they see “unknown small rural private school” on the CV their first response is likely – wonder where that is.

The school’s brand is a door opener. It resonates with alumni and with those who know alumni and have formed an impression of the school on that basis. When a parent contemplates making a major investment in their child’s education – having a school that is known by its brand to be “good” helps make sure that the investment will be recognized.

I’m not saying the “branded” education is better, it may well not be, it should be down to the person, not the brand, but we all know that doesn’t always happen. By all means I’d want my child to win their job based on their own skill and aptitude, not just because they had a degree from X. That said, they need to get the at bat to have the chance to shine. If a little bit of brand reputation helps get that at bat, its an asset worth having and paying for.

17

Rich Puchalsky 10.31.14 at 1:01 pm

“Colleges are disparate communities of scholars (both teachers and students) whose collective identity is largely a fiction”

While perhaps not in as bad a mood as the last critic, I think that’s overstated. The university does have a physical existence, which affects the lives of everyone there in predictable ways, and to some extent a particular subculture. That doesn’t mean that it has to be turned into a brand — there’s an entire literature about the horrors that subcultures confront when marketers try to turn them into brands.

When someone goes to choose which university they’re going to to, in the U.S., first there is the preliminary question of whether their family can afford it and whether their grades / standardized tests are good enough to get them in. But after that, the prospective student may not know what his or her future area of study is going to be, yet they still have to choose which institutions to apply to. So, without being able to choose a university because a particular program is especially good, they’re thrown back on all the other elements that more or less constitute the university’s collective identity. These may not be academically flattering — “is it a party school?” — but they’re there.

18

Sasha Clarkson 10.31.14 at 1:16 pm

Discussions about marketing always remind me of Ben Elton’s novel This Other Eden

The main villain is a marketeer, Plastic Tolstoy, whose educational video Selling My Soul contains his Two Laws of Attrition Marketing.

1) Almost everything anybody ever buys is crap … Anyone can produce any amount of crap … the clever part is to get someone to buy it.

2) The marketing is the product, and vice-versa.

One can see the second law in evidence every day, as victims buy T shirts, pencil cases, and any other amount of rubbish emblazoned with some logo, say, of a sickly brown liquid reputed to dissolve coins and rot one’s teeth.

The other aspect of your article JQ, reinforce a prejudice that my life experience has given me. I am afraid that I regard the caste and culture of modern management as a malignant parasitical disease which infects modern society. The purpose of this caste is self-serving: to divert the maximum amount of society’s resources into its own hands, and to subvert all other societal aims to serve this goal. Their chief weapon is verbal crap: following Elton, I would suggest that bovine ordure with a vague resemblance to ordinary language is both their product and the marketing they use to persuade the rest of us that their existence is necessary.

BTW. As Linus van Pelt (Peanuts) once wrote to the Great Pumpkin after his serial non-appearance: “PS. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am!”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Other_Eden_%28novel%29

19

Seth Gordon 10.31.14 at 1:21 pm

“Excellence in education isn’t just a slogan: it’s our motto!”

(Unfortunately I cannot take credit for that one.)

20

Donald A. Coffin 10.31.14 at 1:30 pm

I assume “…graciously given me permission…” is snark?

21

Bloix 10.31.14 at 1:36 pm

I picked up on the same sentence as Andrew Fisher (#4). Although I didn’t have nearly the same emotional reaction to it, it did occur to me to that it was a strong argument for the abolishment of universities.

If a university is merely a jumble of “disparate communities” with no genuine “collective identity,” why should it exist? There are lots of examples of free-standing medical schools, undergraduate institutions, think tanks, non-profit publishers, public R&D labs, and semi-pro sports teams. If there is no collective identity arising out of these functions, why should they be combined in a single institution with a common budget, board and administration?

22

Jesús Couto Fandiño 10.31.14 at 1:39 pm

#15. No. That is the school reputation, and one hope that is tied tho the reality of studying there and graduating from there.

“Branding” is just corporations realizing they can sale devote all their time to the image and 0 to actual reality and still get a profit. If it got to the point your college has “branding” instead of reputation, the title you get from it is exactly the same. You got all the fake pseudo-virtues of the “brand” and its profund lack of anything of substance to back it up, and you are going to use it to fool the next “consumer” of the “brand”, your employer. For how long… who knows.

23

Sasha Clarkson 10.31.14 at 1:42 pm

An example of what JQ was talking about from my own experience. About 20 years ago I was part of a team which introduced an experimental 16-19 mathematics course into a UK school. It was enjoyable both to teach and to learn. However, about five years later, after I’d left and my head of department had moved on, the new head of department changed to a different, educationally inferior, syllabus and exam board because it had a higher pass rate.

This was a period of rapid “market driven” change in UK education as formerly public examination boards became privately owned, and the educational equivalent of Gresham’s Law caused significant grade inflation.

24

Donald A. Coffin 10.31.14 at 1:43 pm

reason @5: “When people are considering where to study, they look at courses not universities. The brand of the university as a whole is pretty close to irrelevant.”

I suspect this is reasonably true of *graduate* education, but largely untrue of *undergraduate* education. Particularly for students coming directly from secondary schools. I suspect factors having to do with campus culture, athletics, proximity, and so on, have more salience for 18-year-olds than does the reputation (deserved or not) of any academic program.

For some people, who at age 18 think they know what they want to do with their lives, this is not the case. But those 18-year olds may find they are mistaken, and they are, in any event, in a (I would suggest, small) minority.

25

Zamfir 10.31.14 at 1:48 pm

@Jesus, are reputation and brand two separate phenomena?

26

Jesús Couto Fandiño 10.31.14 at 1:51 pm

#24 Not complelty separate, one is the 21 century lets-fake-it-for-profit version of the other.

27

Anarcissie 10.31.14 at 2:05 pm

Trader Joe 10.31.14 at 12:29 pm @ 15 — In short, the university is an important class filter. Hence the need to maintain and improve the brand because the brand is the content, the thing delivered for value received. If some sort of learning or maturation happens too, or if you get to meet the right people, that’s nice, but it’s not the primary purpose. I wonder why this did not become explicit earlier in the game. When I went to school in the 1950s they were still talking about people learning things, although most of the undergraduates knew better.

28

Dingbat 10.31.14 at 2:31 pm

Universities are important as communities; at best they offer a place for people from disparate backgrounds and training to come together. It _should_ improve your education in Classics to be able to bounce ideas off econometricians, biologists, sociologists (to take my own background; I think it did), so in this sense an individual university is right to trumpet its name. The name of the university should convey what is possible.

However, the problem is the conflation of what is possible at the university with the credential: “Oh, you went to the University of Chicago, you must have rubbed shoulders with …” and that too easily morphs into “Oh, you went to Stanford, you’ll be a great CEO for our startup…”

The brand should rightly be bruited to potential students, but the question that they should expect coming out of a university with a known reputation is, “OK, you were at…; what did you learn there?”

(And the universities, it should but doesn’t go without saying, have the responsibility of making sure that they do their damnedest to teach up to the reputations they’ve built, to make sure that they’re not making empty promises to students. Not to mention that the foolishness of rankings and branding has made a marketplace of winners and losers of the universities, and weakened their awareness of their own role in the larger community of scholarship.)

29

Ben 10.31.14 at 2:38 pm

JQ calling Andrew Fisher’s profession was hilarious.

So as to add something constructive, I’ll mention that Veblen called most of this, and the dynamics outlined in the post are extensions of The Higher Learning In America:
A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities By Business Men
(pdf):

[…]”business principles” in academic policy comes to mean, chiefly, the principles of reputable publicity […] Not that this notoriety and prestige, or the efforts that go to their cultivation, conduce in any appreciable degree to any ostensible purpose avowed, or avowable, by any university. These things, that is to say, rather hinder than help the cause of learning […]

30

Zamfir 10.31.14 at 2:51 pm

Jesus CF says: Not completely separate, one is the 21 century lets-fake-it-for-profit version of the other.

What i wonder is, was there ever a time that reputation wasn’t prone to the lets-fake-it-for-profit syndrome? I am somewhat skeptical about that. Even the most deservedly-reputable universities always had people hard at work to puff up that reputation, and often to grind down the competition’s.

As some people above already noted, universities used to have cliched latin mottos before they had cliched english mission statements. And a coat of arms before they had a logo.

31

Trader Joe 10.31.14 at 3:23 pm

@26 Anarcissie
“In short, the university is an important class filter. “

I don’t wholly disagree, but this overstates it a bit. There are numerous fine universities with excellent brands/reputations that are largely accessible to a pretty broad range of socio-economic classes – everyone, no, but most state schools anyway find a way to enroll a kid if they have the brains to get in.

Certainly when you talk about Ivies and similar old guard schools in the U.S. or Ox/Bridge in the UK your statement resonates.

32

christian_h 10.31.14 at 3:26 pm

I think Andrew Fisher should apologize. He clearly insinuated that the laughable charges of “insubordination” against Prof. Docherty involved sexual harassment by linking to an opinion piece that has not a single thing to say about that particular case. That is sleazy and disgusting and may in fact be libelous. Or maybe Andrew is himself a Warwick manager and gas inside knowledge about the case, in which case his insinuations about what Docherty was charged with are selective leaking of issues his own management claims are confidential – a typical management move of course but not one we have to put up with.

33

Jesús Couto Fandiño 10.31.14 at 3:31 pm

#29 Of course, of course, the problem is as old as humanity. The difference is the professionalization of faking it. The enshrinement of faking it as an ideology, as a “science”, as a methodology. Thats what branding is, the assembly-line method to faking it, with studies and charts and all that to ensure you are faking it as good as you can.

Better yet, “branding” is, in itself, a brand :P

34

Thornton Hall 10.31.14 at 3:32 pm

The single most important change to universities needs to be ending the notion that only some citizens are qualified for university education.

In 2014, the same principles that justified universal Ed to age 17 a century ago, justify it to age 21 now. Every public university should be a mix from philosophy majors to hair-cutting majors to plumbing majors to physics majors. It should be 100% free.

Serving that purpose would probably mean a lot more instructors and a lot less emphasis on publishing.

Private schools can continue to do whatever they want, but student loans from the govt should end.

35

Peter Dorman 10.31.14 at 3:53 pm

I think this discussion largely treats branding as a disease rather than a symptom.

What has happened over the past few decades is that governments in various ways have tried to inject competition into higher education. In my country (the US) this takes above all the form of replacing public support of public higher ed with student tuition. Public institutions are forced to compete for students, and their marketing drive can’t help but influence private colleges and universities as well. But we also see “excellence initiatives”, greater emphasis on rankings and other devices to turn this sector into a competitive domain. In some cases (rankings, more competitive grantmaking) the competitive unit is the department or lab, but mostly it’s the institution as a whole. Branding is a response to this.

Of course there is also the fad factor: branding, and brand equity, have become important features of modern capitalism. Yet to a large extent this too is symptomatic of changes in the structure of the economy, for instance the increasing degree of competition between large corporations, reflected in greater turnover, and the transformation of corporations into portfolios of diverse productive units. In all this there is an interplay between changing incentives and the mental frameworks people view them through: economic pressures create the need for branding, and a brand framework justifies institutional strategies that accentuate agglomeration and market share.

And so what does it all mean? I think there is a positive side to the heightened competition being stoked in higher ed. For too long a handful of elite institutions had a hereditary monopoly on their eliteness, at the cost of excluding the rest. A blast of competition had to be a good thing for them. There are also positive aspects to applying market criteria to education and research. At my institution, for instance, we are in the process of being forced to pay much more attention to what students want to study, which in our case is long overdue. For many applied fields, it’s reasonable to want closer collaboration between university researchers and nonacademic practitioners.

That said, I agree with the critique of putting universities on a market footing: students are not consumers—not if real education is taking place—and there needs to be an overriding commitment to the preservation and expansion of knowledge and understanding in all its forms, for its own sake. Neither of these objectives can be served without making trouble for society and annoying just about everyone at one time or another. I suppose you could brand that too: We Piss You Off.

36

Marc 10.31.14 at 4:43 pm

Universities do have a common culture. Students at universities, at least in the US, tend to have a common core of required courses; and there are strong local cultural norms embedded in those courses. It may well be true that other systems, without the common “general education” courses typical in the US, would be closer to collections of autonomous departments. But, in the US, I’d contend that a degree from a given institution has more in common with another degree from the same place than it does with a degree in the same major elsewhere (e.g. if you look at the courses that the student actually took, or the overall academic environment.) The exceptions would be strong programs at weak institutions or vice versa, but these are not common.

37

Rob 10.31.14 at 4:50 pm

Excellent article. My university just unveiled its branding strategy, and it is entirely ripped-off from apple — it has white silhouettes on brightly coloured backgrounds and a slogan that is basically the same as ‘think different’ (in addition, our slogan is just as grammatically challenged as Apple’s). The silhouette images are all technophillic with actual ipods–more Apple–attached to test-tubes or headphones attached to gavels, all meant to give the impression that what we do here is ‘break boundaries’ and think up new doodads for curing cancer. I wonder what we paid for this.

38

Nick 10.31.14 at 5:08 pm

I did an Erasmus Mundus degree in Europe, and found that they had a very strict system for the proportion of grades in each class:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ECTS_grading_scale

But between Belgium, Norway, Germany, and Switzerland, the only institution that applied this strictly was the University of Basel.

39

Jim Harrison 10.31.14 at 5:22 pm

Once you redefine education as Voc Tech and universities as businesses, the advance of the servile arts turns the liberal arts into bric-a-brac and traditional notions of academic freedom become merely quaint since it is unclear how they are supposed to pay.

40

Main Street Muse 10.31.14 at 6:11 pm

“First there is the emphasis on image without any reference to an underlying reality.”

This is actually not “branding” – this is bad branding. There is a huge difference.

Apple is a leader in branding specifically because the products and the brand identity were aligned. “Think different” was illustrated not just in the ad campaign but in the vast array of Apple products that transformed how we communicate – from the desktop hub to the iPod to iTunes to iPhone, etc. THAT’s why Apple is a fantastic example of branding – the products actually related to the brand identity.

Universities absolutely have “brands” – that’s is how students determine which university to attend. People generally don’t apply to a university because of a teacher. They apply to a university because its identity has an intangible appeal. The university may be a collection of “disparate communities of scholars (both teachers and students)” – but so is EVERY company also a collection of disparate communities (researchers, marketers, product developers, C-suite executives, sales teams, admins, etc.)

Universities have mottos, colors, logos, mascots – these are ALL branding tools. Universities DO need to differentiate from other universities – that is where branding comes in – and this is not new to “corporatization of higher ed.” Michael Jordan says he bleeds Tar Heel blue. University of Chicago has an entirely different brand identity than University of Illinois – and both have very different identities and attract very different students than one finds at Harvard. Students gravitate toward these university identities – which is what branding does – it creates identity to go along with the product.

I can only speak for American universities – if, as JQ says, “virtually every Australian university has adopted (replacing the Latinate motto that used to adorn its crest) a branding slogan: “Know more. Do more.” “Where brilliant begins” – I can see why he is outraged. That’s god-awful branding that is getting in the way of the particular brand identity the university has built over time.

BUT… JQ says: “The rise of corporate-style branding has gone hand in hand with the devaluation of degrees through grade inflation. Grades in the A range have become the norm at leading universities.”

WHO is responsible for that devaluation of degrees through grade inflation? Not the brand-conscious university communications folks. You can thank professors for that particular problem embedded in higher ed today. What is behind that push to give everyone an “A”? Branding made them do it? I’d love to hear the theories…

41

que_es 10.31.14 at 6:16 pm

“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.”

Of course it’s nonsense, but isn’t this beside the point? Branding is simply a symptom of universities having been deemed “market participants.” The primary purpose of the branding obsession for institutions like the University of Florida is what the OP refers to as the early 20th century goal of conjuring up positive associations; correspondence to reality is not what it’s about. This kind of “nonsense” branding makes even more sense if one believes a university’s communal constituents are in reality disparate and attenuated. There is no cohesive idea of University X so one must be created. Successful branding does that by implanting consistently-themed positive associations in the minds of potential “consumers” of the “product” and thereby drives revenue to the institution. If universities are now market participants selling products to consumers then branding is a no-brainer. “Just Do It.”

42

John Quiggin 10.31.14 at 6:25 pm

Responding to AF

I didn’t mean to downplay the vital work done by all kinds of workers in universities, including cleaners, technical staff and administrators. But the ideology of branding is even more nonsensical when applied to their work than to that of those directly engaged in teaching, learning and research. Is there a “Warwick way to clean”, for example?

And, of course, the managerialism that gives rise to branding has also pushed hard to reduce job security and autonomy for these workers (except senior managers), as much or more so as it has done for academics.

And to Bloix: As you say, there’s no necessity for all the components of a university to be in a single institution, and many exist separately, but there are obvious advantages, such as the capacity for students to study a wide range of subjects, for researchers to do cross-disciplinary work, for libraries to have comprehensive collections and so on.

43

Chris Bertram 10.31.14 at 6:34 pm

Coming late to this one, but I’d like to say a few words in defence of Andrew Fisher, even though I enjoyed and largely agree with John’s article.

It is good that Docherty was exonerated, but too much of the commentary on the case has taken the form of ridiculing the charges (as reported, and in the absence of knowledge of the detail). It isn’t actually ridiculous to think that body language, sarcasm and the like, if directed systematically against a person over a period of time, would warrant a disciplinary charge. It is called bullying, and bullying in the workplace is something that warrants managerial action. Sometimes the bullying can take a sexist/misogynistic form, and I take its wrongness would be exacerbated in that case.

Mea culpa, by the way. When this first came up on Facebook and the like I joined in the ridicule at the charges. But I was wrong to do so. They may have been ridiculous in this particular case, but they aren’t necessarily ridiculous by their very nature, as the laughter has suggested.

44

MPAVictoria 10.31.14 at 6:48 pm

I choose the university that I attended for my undergrad degree because of its proximity to my parents home. I choose the university I attended for my graduate degree because it accepted my application and the weather was good.

Both were perfectly nice places to study. Canadian universities are usually pretty good. We may not have the highs of the American system but we don’t seem to have the lows either.

45

Anarcissie 10.31.14 at 7:19 pm

Trader Joe 10.31.14 at 3:23 pm @ 31 —
Class is still somewhat permeable in the US (with respect to ancestry and inherited wealth), although it is becoming less so. It is the future that matters, however — the output of the filter rather than its input. Legacy matriculants can be mixed in with sharper members of the profanum vulgus; those who prove stable, smart, and submissive enough over the prescribed time are permitted to enter the lower ranks of state’s various hierarchies, in other words, ‘get a good job’. And thus the state and its ruling class replicate themselves.

I think the ‘branding’ thing, though, is further evidence of decay. A few generations ago I imagine respectable universities all sniffed at mere commerce. I can recall one eminent educator from an eminent university sneering, ‘We are not a vocational school,’ when the ‘relevance’ of the school’s curriculum was questioned. (Remember ‘relevance’?)

46

John Quiggin 10.31.14 at 7:28 pm

@43 Chris, you raise an important point, and I didn’t mean to suggest that the actions were trivial.

But it seems to me they are more characteristic of insubordination, the offence with which Docherty was charged, than with bullying (also available as a charge, I assume). It seems like a pretty dangerous step for workers in general if lack of respect for managers is conflated with bullying.

47

Chris Bertram 10.31.14 at 7:34 pm

Well that’s right John, sort of. I’m well aware that codes of behaviour can and are used by those in power to silence critics. But things are a bit messier in academic departments when the “manager” is the academic who has accepted the poisoned chalice and the “subordinate” is a senior academic who may have higher status than the head of department.

48

John Quiggin 10.31.14 at 7:40 pm

There must be a whole book in the question of “head of department” status in a managerialist university. I wonder if it has been written?

49

Barry 10.31.14 at 8:02 pm

Peter Dorman: “And so what does it all mean? I think there is a positive side to the heightened competition being stoked in higher ed. For too long a handful of elite institutions had a hereditary monopoly on their eliteness, at the cost of excluding the rest. A blast of competition had to be a good thing for them. There are also positive aspects to applying market criteria to education and research. At my institution, for instance, we are in the process of being forced to pay much more attention to what students want to study, which in our case is long overdue. For many applied fields, it’s reasonable to want closer collaboration between university researchers and nonacademic practitioners.”

BTW, I haven’t seen too many signs of competition between universities shaking things up. Remember, that ranking to which Kieran linked was very recent; it looks like 20 or more years of this (in the USA) has had very small effect.

50

John Quiggin 10.31.14 at 8:12 pm

In Australia and the UK, at least, competition has formalized and entrenched the division between the elite (G08 and Russell Group, both organizations set up in the 1990s) and the rest.

51

Barry 10.31.14 at 8:23 pm

Somebody had a blog post on this once – it’s been a long time in the USA, at least, since a tier 1 university was founded, even though there have been a number of billionaires who might have done this (probably even longer in the UK). In the US I believe that Stanford was the last one.

52

jgtheok 10.31.14 at 8:33 pm

If we’re discussing university branding… perhaps part of the reason it seems so ridiculous is the nature of the decision under consideration?

The choice of university was the most carefully researched decision of my life. Many hours, spaced over months, spent mulling options, with a checklist of facts to consider: tuition, size, location, academic ratings, past admission statistics…. plus extensive input from parents, older acquaintances who had attended various schools, etc.

University tuition isn’t an impulse buy. Typical marketing BS is likely to be recognized as such. Not to say that brand is meaningless – more that, in this context, it represents a collective judgment largely beyond the control of university PR squads.

53

christian_h 10.31.14 at 8:41 pm

I can’t agree with Chris. None of the behaviors that have been reported, if aimed at someone who is after all your managerial superior, can be construed as bullying in my opinion. Of course if a senior person constantly belittles in word or behavior the work of a student or junior colleague, this is something that has to be dealt with. I don’t think anyone disagrees (although whether suspension from duty for long periods of time before a hearing is even had is the way to deal with it is a different question).

However we should also keep in mind that the kind of microaggression that Docherty was accused of is incredibly common in academia. I am sure we have all seen it (or maybe math is worse than other subjects, I dunno). And you know what – I have never heard of anyone at all being disciplined for it. Yet here we have the case of an academic who is well-known for his criticism of education policy, and this is the one case the suspension hammer comes down? Doesn’t pass the smell test. That is why I stand by calling the charges laughable.

54

Metatone 10.31.14 at 8:45 pm

Lots of interesting things here, but a recent discussion with one group of students about GPA really makes me focus on the Harvard A/A- issue.

Obviously, one has to filter out the fact that the brand puts Harvard grads ahead of many grads in the job market. Still, it’s interesting that Harvard students feel much the same way as my students (from a much lesser branded place). GPA is all important because HR departments use it as a primary filter, often using databases and the like. Reputation/brand is secondary to that single number…

55

christian_h 10.31.14 at 8:47 pm

To add in case it needs to be said: if a colleague were to habitually act belittling or aggressive towards female academics, that also would be unacceptable. Or I should say, should be unacceptable because again this is quite common (certainly in math), but never disciplined and rarely even called out.

56

Metatone 10.31.14 at 8:53 pm

@Barry – I teach at a relatively new private institution in the US system (although I work on an overseas campus) and the key obstacle to us becoming a Tier 1 institution is that the business model of a Tier 1 only works when you’re already a Tier 1.

We might be considered a Tier 2 teaching institution, but all the pressures on the business model push against quality. The push is for bigger class sizes, more insecure faculty contracts, etc.

I find it frustrating because I started teaching at the institution because it’s well positioned (thanks to some historically lucky decisions) to innovate and push for Tier 1 on the basis of actually providing quite a different and better education. Alas, the management looked at that set of ideas (not just mine, many of the faculty bought in) said it looked really interesting and could we sketch out a pilot? Then they proceeded to make contracts even more insecure, to the point of pushing out some good people, and then doubled class sizes. Hence, we’re bigger, we’re “growing” – but we’re locked into a Tier 2 business model…

57

Barry 10.31.14 at 10:06 pm

That raises some good points – to become great, or even good, a university has to think long-term.

58

Nick 10.31.14 at 11:42 pm

Duke was basically founded in its modern form in the 1920s — I believe it counts as a Tier 1.

59

LFC 11.01.14 at 2:02 am

Main Street Muse @40:

Universities absolutely have “brands” – that is how students determine which university to attend. … They apply to a university because its identity has an intangible appeal.

How do you know this? Have you read empirical studies about what determines students’ decisions to apply to one school or another? Are you generalizing from a few personal experiences or stories? Are you just talking off the top of your head?

60

Main Street Muse 11.01.14 at 3:06 am

To LFC @59 – the idea that all universities are amorphous entities with no identity other than “higher ed institution” is laughable – at least in the US. (Maybe until recently, all universities in Australia have lacked any kind of differentiation – I don’t know – but that’s not how it works in the US.)

Look at each university’s website. As with any branded identity, universities have logos, mottos, colors, mascots, fonts, tee-shirts, rabid fans, competitors, etc. They are branded – and have been branded long before the “corporatization” of higher ed. Harvard is different than UPenn,, which is different than Yale, which is different than University of Michigan. They have personalities and associations – this is branding. They are known for particular strengths. And MANY universities have developed better brand associations than corporations – with loyalties that extend through generations (the legacies who get in because their parents went to that particular university.)

Look at P&G’s “Thank You Mom/Proud Sponsor of Moms” campaign to see a corporation attempting to go beyond product branding and create associations for the umbrella organization. And quite frankly, P&G is far more disparate of a community than any university – and until recently, has been extremely amorphous in having any particular brand identity. (The recession hit P&G very hard – which is one reason why you see this brand campaign for the company and not just for Tide, Pampers, etc.)

And again, if university branding is on the rise because of the “devaluation of degrees through grade inflation” – where is that grade inflation coming from? Who gives these inflated grades – and why? Professors are – for whatever reason – shifting the university away from that “ideal of advancing knowledge through free discussion.” (See UNC-CH Wainstein Report for more on the trashing of that ideal.)

61

DavidMoz 11.01.14 at 7:48 am

MSM @ 60 (3.06am)

“[Universities] have personalities and associations – this is branding.”

This is surely the cart before the horse? Every person who has ever existed in a community has a personality and a reputation. Branding is the deliberate attempt to massage such a personality and reputation into something able to be sold. If this were not the case, it is difficult to see how any institution or corporation could justify spending a brass razoo on such nonsense.

62

John Quiggin 11.01.14 at 9:16 am

@Metatone: I recently saw a talk advertised on “How to Build a Great University”. The speaker had held senior positions at Oxford and Yale. I assume the key message of the speech was “Make sure to start well before 1800”.

63

John Quiggin 11.01.14 at 9:18 am

MSM, I believe you are talking about college football teams, not colleges. It’s a common confusion.

64

dsquared 11.01.14 at 10:52 am

Ironically, John’s suggested slogan would actually be a great example of the identifiable “Australian style” of copywriting. Having a slogan that’s just a straightfoward description of the product was so ubiquitous in Australian advertising that it was an industry joke for years (also, the tendency to flag up that any domestic product was “Aussie”). IIRC the canonical example was “Thick And Meaty Aussie Saussies, they’re thick and meaty (and they’re sausages)”.

So I think UQ would be well advised to reconsider “UQ – It’s a pure Aussie university in Queensland – study there!”.

65

sPh 11.01.14 at 2:15 pm

“John Quiggin
MSM, I believe you are talking about college football teams, not colleges. It’s a common confusion.”

JQ,
At the well-known (or perhaps just well advertised?) major US undergraduate universities [1] it is one and the same. The athletics corporation may be the major advertising vehicle on the teevee but the student body has its own perception of and excitement about itself and its soon-to-be alma mater as well. I don’t disagree with much of what was said in the OP about the concept of corporate branding taken to extremes [2] but for major undergraduate institutions in the US it is an open questions as to which came first, and whether the “brand managers” are driving the bus or just sitting in the front row offering suggestions. Heck, over the last five years I’ve even gotten caught up in the madness at my _children’s_ chosen schools.

sPh

Rock Fight!

[1] I’ve even seen it with strong community colleges

[2] The worst example being the apparel industry where real companies making high quality products (e.g. Eddie Bauer) have been acquired one after another and hollowed out into “brands” that do nothing but select colors and put their “labels” on poor-quality clothing all made the same set of sweatshops.

66

Bloix 11.01.14 at 2:17 pm

A pop quiz for Prof. Q:
1) Describe the similarities and differences of the following institutions: MIT, RIT, SIT, RPI, Cal Tech, Cal Poly, Drexel.
2) What do the following have in common? How are they different? BU, GWU, NYU, Wash U.
3) These schools are in contiguous mid-Atlantic states. Which one is different? Why? University of Delaware; University of Maryland; University of Virginia.
4) You are an ambitious, upper-middle class male high school senior from the suburbs of a major east coast city with high grades and SAT scores. Which of the following is not on your list of possible safety schools? University of Michigan, University of Ohio, University of Wisconsin.
5) What sort of undergrad would be happiest at each of the following Southern schools? Duke; SMU; Vanderbilt.

67

Mdc 11.01.14 at 2:44 pm

Hearty agreement with almost everything in the piece. But the perniciouness of brand ideology does not depend on this premise:

“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.”

A single learning community, coextensive with the whole college, has real advantages for students and faculty. On the other hand, for all the talk of ‘learning community’ in admissions marketing, it’s usually not recognized how incredibly difficult it is to generate or preserve such a thing.

68

JanieM 11.01.14 at 4:08 pm

Which of the following is not on your list of possible safety schools? University of Michigan, University of Ohio, University of Wisconsin.

Ummmm, University of Ohio? Where is that?

69

Main Street Muse 11.01.14 at 5:54 pm

To JQ – I am not talking about college football, except as an extension of the university brand. Many American universities are outstanding examples of branding (and branding that goes back decades and NOT just isolated to sports.) Again, universities have colors, mascots, branded items for sale – you can ignore this or say it is “branding” only as it relates to “football” – but why do Division III schools use those branding tools? (I still have a big cup that sits on my desk to use a pencil holder branded with the motto and logo from my Division III undergraduate college – and football was not at all a factor in its brand identity.)

U of Illinois has had a great reputation as having a strong engineering program, along with its basketball team. Kansas was considered a party school when I was looking at colleges. Williams and Amherst are different than each other – and different from UChicago – and not because of sports.

There are any number of associations people have with higher ed institutions – i.e. brand identities that are used by professors, administrators, alumni and students to determine where to apply, where to work, how to get alumni to donate, etc. In The Great Gatsby, it was not an accident that Tom Buchanan, that “brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen,” was from Yale and not Princeton or Harvard or University of North Carolina – Fitzgerald was using brand associations that readers would understand (and still understand today.)

Your contention that universities are amorphous entities with no clear identity other than as generic scholarly communities is odd and does not stand up to scrutiny – at least in America. Perhaps things are vastly different in Australia.

If you truly feel that the university brand is solely identified with a sport, then clearly, higher ed institutions are not at all “disparate communities of scholars (both teachers and students) whose collective identity is largely a fiction.” The “community of scholars” is perhaps the fiction these days… (Again, see UNC-Chapel Hill and other Division I farm teams for more on this…)

70

Nick 11.01.14 at 6:46 pm

People are confusing brands and character. Every university in the United States has a certain character, and it’s not one that the university consciously chooses. KUs character, for example, is a combination of the following traits: a history of being good at basketball, a history of being lousy at football, a beautiful location on top of a hill, a strong history in certain fields (entomology, paleontology), recent underfunding, and its nature as the non-ag school in an ag state, and its lack of neighbours (if Tufts was in Kansas, it would be Oberlin). Very few of those are emphasized by the ‘brand’, but they are definitely part of the school’s character. With the public schools that are the best of the lot, academics will play a stronger role (e.g. U. of Wisconsin, Michigan); with private schools, a lot of the character comes between the contrast between academics and price (Duke is very expensive, but its academics are first rate; Washington University is very expensive, but its academics are not quite as good; NYU is very expensive, but it has a terrible reputation compared to most private schools, not sure why but it probably relates to its location). These are not brands — they relate instead to the many factors that influence a school’s position on the American hierarchy. In fact the things that an advertising department can influence, with regard to the school ‘brand’, are practically useless — just like I can’t (positively) influence my social position with my Facebook page.

71

mdc 11.01.14 at 7:40 pm

Nick: interesting list. How many of those sorts of features are “relevant to the actual business of teaching and research” of nearly everyone who studies there? Strengths in particular departments, I’d think no. Sports stuff, no. Location on a hill, very marginally relevant?Underfunding, yes. Non-ag option in the state, yes. Though that last is in some sense “consciously chosen,” isn’t it?

72

Sasha Clarkson 11.01.14 at 8:00 pm

I agree with Nick. Ethos and reputation usually go back decades or more and can’t be manufactured by management and marketing. But they can be damaged by such. Also, there is continuing evolution which means that perceived quality changes over time.

But within any institution there are a myriad of sub ethoses and individuals who are atypical. Promoting a brand image is selling snake oil. Maintaining the quality of teaching and research is what counts. I suspect that diversity helps quality too.

Of course, a nice crest and colours which can be used in merchandise can raise a nice bit of extra income from the old students and the tribally inclined. However, this tail should not be allowed to wag the dog, or coerce the nature of the breed. It helps of course when the institutions are publicly funded.

73

Sasha Clarkson 11.01.14 at 8:02 pm

Speaking of the tribally inclined:

74

LFC 11.01.14 at 8:45 pm

MSM @60
the idea that all universities are amorphous entities with no identity other than “higher ed institution” is laughable

Do you really think I was suggesting this? I wasn’t. I was questioning your assertion about how people decide which schools to apply to. Obvs. univs. have different identities and ‘characters’. But as DavidMoz @61 said, you are confusing this w ‘branding’: it’s not the same.

I do think the ‘character’ differences can be overdrawn, esp. within certain categories. But that’s another question, one i don’t want to get into.

75

Dick Muliken 11.01.14 at 8:47 pm

The whole imbroglio exemplifies why universities need to jettison all management staff. Lets get rid of the entire structure, deans, assistant deans and all the rest. Let universities be run exclusively by teaching faculty, assisted by a handful of secretaries and janitors.

76

LFC 11.01.14 at 8:51 pm

Bloix @66
You are an ambitious, upper-middle class male high school senior from the suburbs of a major east coast city with high grades and SAT scores. Which of the following is not on your list of possible safety schools? University of Michigan, University of Ohio, University of Wisconsin.

I know the answer to this one: The “University of Ohio” is not on your list of possible safety schools, b/c as JanieM pointed out, it doesn’t exist.

If you meant Ohio State, my guess is that Michigan is the hardest to get into of those three, but none of them may be a completely sure thing for an out-of-state applicant, even well-credentialed. (But I really don’t know and, fortunately I suppose, have no particular need to know.)

77

LFC 11.01.14 at 9:01 pm

p.s. I see Nick @70 also made the pt about confusing brands and character.

78

hix 11.01.14 at 9:07 pm

Where im studying, the extend of non homogenity just makes things worse, as some degree programs also try to brand themself in direct competition against other degrees at the same University. Also note to self: Just shut up as a lowerly medicore student in a world where even high status academics are targeted for minor threats to brand image.
Our brand new degree program brand slogan is so creative, its already been mentioned above.

79

Donald A. Coffin 11.02.14 at 2:18 am

Janie M–Ohio University is actually *in* the Athens of the Midwest…Athens, Ohio…

80

JanieM 11.02.14 at 2:22 am

Donald Coffin: I’m well aware of that, since I grew up in Ohio and spent time on that campus with high school friends who went to school there. Bloix didn’t write “Ohio University,” he wrote “University of Ohio.” There’s no such institution.

81

A H 11.02.14 at 2:50 am

I’ve always found it interesting that more economists don’t beleive in the long run neutrality of grades.

Also, you are all wrong. The true and proper name for the major public university in Athens, Ohio is, “The Ohio State University”.

82

JanieM 11.02.14 at 2:55 am

Also, you are all wrong. The true and proper name for the major public university in Athens, Ohio is, “The Ohio State University”.

Is that supposed to be a joke? Ohio State is in Columbus.

83

A H 11.02.14 at 2:59 am

Duh, bone headed mistake. I’ll blame it on the Nyquil I just took.

84

JanieM 11.02.14 at 3:10 am

A H — hope you get some sleep. I’m extra dumb for half the next day when I’ve taken Benadryl at bedtime. But sometimes it’s worth it.

85

Collin Street 11.02.14 at 3:40 am

1) Describe the similarities and differences of the following institutions: MIT, RIT, SIT, RPI, Cal Tech, Cal Poly, Drexel.

Seven institutions… it seems to be asking for pairwise comparisons between each of them, which would be six times seven = 42 pairs, with a “similarity” and a “difference” between each, which is… call it seventy-five sentences or getting close to a thousand words.

As one question out of four in a “pop quiz”. All up we’d be looking at something like three thousand words plus research or maybe two days work.

Bloix: you have a problem.

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Watson Ladd 11.02.14 at 4:46 am

@Collin: I didn’t know one of them (Cal Poly) very well, but that’s because I went to a high school in New Jersey. Some of them are institutions I wouldn’t expect people outside of the Northeast to know.

Of them MIT and Caltech need very little explanation, although Caltech is easier to get into, and one of very few schools with objective admissions criteria. This comes at a cost socially. MIT was better in math then Caltech when I was looking, but curricula change.

RPI is a reasonably regarded institution in Rensselaer New York. RIT has massive numbers of deaf students, but otherwise is similar to SIT: a both are a tier below RPI.

Drexel is much more preprofessional and less engineering. It’s in Pennsylvania.

I don’t think that’s really too much detail, although someone who didn’t grow up in the area might not know about some of the schools. It is a useful example of characteristics that branding won’t change, and characteristics that matter to students but not professors.

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JanieM 11.02.14 at 5:07 am

Seven things to compare pairwise means 21 pairs, not 42. Order doesn’t matter.

RPI is in Troy, not Rensselaer.

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Nick 11.02.14 at 5:42 am

To MDC @71 — I actually think that having a few excellent departments is important to a middling school like KU; even if the vast majority of students don’t study paleontology or entomology or whatnot, the impression of quality can be made — grad students who are ambitious and professors who are demanding, a decent public museum, etc. A good department can rub off on other areas in a lot of ways.

I didn’t go to KU but I grew up in Lawrence; it’s possible that what I think about universities is affected by coming from the Midwest, where they’re few and far between. I wouldn’t be surprised if the social differentiation is much reduced in large cities or the populated East.

A school’s character is a lot like social position — some schools ‘can’t’ lost it, anything Harvard does (within reason) will gain an aura, just by dint of Harvard doing it. Other schools can spill oceans of money on endowed chairs, and achieve nothing but getting high-quality scholars to use their zip code for a few years. The branding that a public school in Florida indulges in would look gross at Princeton, like me trying to affect a Boston accent and go golfing with Captains of Finance. I honestly don’t know why universities bother, I thought that JQ’s description of academia has having shared values of collaboration and open-ness has far more dignity.

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hix 11.02.14 at 3:22 pm

Applying to so many different Universities, each with another procedure that takes lots of time to go trough, then moving to the highest status one of those one gets admission to, its such a waste of societies resources for nothing. Why cant everyone just study at home as a starting point. Some can move to whatever city/country they are curious about for a time, or for their entire studies. Some can pick a school that has the appropiate distance to ones parents depending on the quality of the relation. But as a starting point, staying home, no status games would be best. That should reduces commuting costs, rental costs, environmental damage, reduce suicide rates……

I just cant see a difference depending on how selective programs are. Ive seen admission for the top 5% only and admission for every applicant. All the same, no added value in puting the “smart” students together in one group. Rather, even in Germany where admission is often still strictly based on gpa, selective admission just puts together a more boring group of students that all think alike.

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Bloix 11.02.14 at 4:49 pm

#81 – actually, I meant Ohio University. Now there’s a school with a branding problem.

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Bloix 11.02.14 at 5:08 pm

#76 – my point was that Michigan and Wisconsin have tremendous cred among high-acheiving high school students and parents in the east. They are treated like public ivies. So kids and families that are hoping for Penn will look at Michigan as an alternative to GW. But they would never consider Ohio University (or any school with “State” in its name, for that matter.) This has nothing to do with football.

#85- anyone with a superficial knowledge of engineering schools “knows” that MIT is the cream, CalTech is the west coast equivalent, RPI and Cal Poly are “good schools” but not the same rank, Drexel and RIT turn out competent and well-trained workers (although Drexel is trying to become more of a “national university”), and Stevens is a grind with no national reputation.

How can a school alter these perceptions? Is it unreasonable for it to try?

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John Quiggin 11.02.14 at 6:33 pm

“How can a school alter these perceptions? Is it unreasonable for it to try?”

1. By actually improving its teaching and research, rather than wasting money on branding exercises; but, whatever method is tried
2. With great difficulty, as witness the stability of rankings over a century or more

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Anarcissie 11.02.14 at 8:38 pm

Is there such a thing as an objective evaluation of teaching and research? Because otherwise there is nothing with which to oppose the effects of branding, public relations in general, traditional repute, and class connections.

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Collin Street 11.02.14 at 8:41 pm

> #85- anyone with a superficial knowledge of engineering schools “knows”

What I am pointing out to you is that you’ve just asked someone you don’t know questions involving hours of work if he wants to answer them as written. Whether your “substantive” point that your questions articulate is correct is neither here nor there.

Why did you think that asking an australian economist multiple detail questions about mid-tier US engineering schools was reasonable? What did you think he should have done? What did you think he would do?

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Bloix 11.02.14 at 8:44 pm

Prof Quiggin, in my little quiz I asked what the following schools had in common: NYU; BU; Wash U; GWU. You can add Northwestern to the list. These were commuter schoools that in only a few decades raised their status among high school students and their families to a level just below the Ivies. Branding and marketing played a huge role in what they’ve done. If you’re not familiar with their spectacularly successful strategy, you need to be before you conclude that marketing doesn’t work.

Drexel, for example, is trying the same thing – it has observed that big cities with a high prestige national university seem to have room for a second one (Columbia-NYU, Georgetown-GW, U Chicago-Northwestern, Harvard-BU) and it wants to fill that space in Philadelphia. Time will tell. And whether it’s a socially or academically useful thing to be doing is another question entirely. But to say that marketing and branding are always a waste is to ignore the history of these universities.

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Bloix 11.02.14 at 8:55 pm

#94- I wasn’t seriously asking him to answer the questions. I was pointing out that he probably doesn’t have the knowledge base of virtually any university-educated American. You can’t say that brands don’t mean anything if you have little familiarity with the product. In the US, higher education is fragmented, privatized, decentralized, with more institutions, and more kinds of institutions, than anywhere else. And tuition is a higher fraction of funding here than anywhere else. Branding here makes a kind of sense that may not apply in countries with fewer schools and more direct public funding.

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John Quiggin 11.02.14 at 10:17 pm

Looking at Kieran’s list, Northwestern and Wash U were both ranked as Class 1 in 1911, NYU, BU, and GWU as Class 2 . How many decades did you have in mind?

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Watson Ladd 11.02.14 at 10:24 pm

Bloix: Harvard isn’t in the same city as BU. It’s not even across the bridge. MIT and Harvard are both in Cambridge, and MIT is across the bridge from BU. Furthermore, in Boston there are several other schools a tier below the Ivies (Brandeis, Boston College, Tufts) and in mathematics they actually are similar to some Ivies or better. (Particularly in number theory, my area)

I think this makes JQ’s point: how one thinks of BU is very different as a high school student looking at colleges, then as an academic on the job market. It’s not clear branding makes sense here.

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John Quiggin 11.02.14 at 10:29 pm

I’m surprised that no-one has mentioned one of the most salient aspects of perceptions of universities (at least from this outsider’s point of view) namely whether they are regarded as “party schools”. My son spent a year at UCSB which is prominently listed here

http://www.collegeatlas.org/top-party-schools.html

and lived up to its reputation, from his reports.

Do any US universities actively promote this image, or more interestingly. the opposite That is, not merely ignoring the party school aspect, but marketing in a way that deliberately suggests sobriety – I assume BYU and similar would take this for granted, but that’s not what I have in mind.

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John Quiggin 11.02.14 at 10:46 pm

I remember getting the Ohios confused in this post from way back

http://johnquiggin.com/2003/03/01/its-academic/

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Matt 11.02.14 at 11:06 pm

Do any US universities actively promote this image, or more interestingly. the opposite That is, not merely ignoring the party school aspect, but marketing in a way that deliberately suggests sobriety

I’m not sure about sobriety, per se, but for may years the unofficial motto of the University of Chicago (for undergrads, at least) was supposedly “where fun goes to die”, and the marketing department tried hard to play down a poll where students picked the library as their favorite place on campus.

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LFC 11.02.14 at 11:08 pm

Bloix #91

#76 – my point was that Michigan and Wisconsin have tremendous cred among high-acheiving high school students and parents in the east. They are treated like public ivies. So kids and families that are hoping for Penn will look at Michigan as an alternative to GW. But they would never consider Ohio University (or any school with “State” in its name, for that matter.)

Then I would say: the more fools they. People who are applying to colleges really owe it to themselves to investigate particular schools and how good a match they will be for the particular person in question, not write off Ohio Univ. (or Ohio State or any other place for that matter) b/c their perceived prestige level doesn’t come up to Michigan or Wisc. People who apply on that basis (perception) are actually doing themselves a disservice.

Just because a univ. has had a successful branding strategy doesn’t mean the applicant has to succumb to that strategy and apply there. If someone wants to go to GWU b/c Professor X or Y (I cd name some names but won’t) teaches there, or b/c for some reason they like the parking garages on G St. or they like the library facilities, that’s all fine and dandy and they should apply there. But to apply to GWU b/c it has had (acc. to Bloix) a successful ‘branding strategy’ or b/c it bought up half the f*cking real estate in Foggy Bottom is just plain stupid. IMHO.

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sPh 11.02.14 at 11:08 pm

“and Wash U were both ranked as Class 1 in 1911”

As I noted in that thread, WUSTL had a national and international reputation from 1880-1920. It was also a football powerhouse during that period, playing another big Midwestern football school, the University of Chicago, three times for national championships IIRC. It should be noted that during that time college footballs teams were openly acknowledged to be arms of the advertising department at many schools and what amounted to semi-professional players were recruited to fill the ranks.

WU lost its way and its reputation some time in the 1940s-1950, despite an infusion of Manhattan Project work and refugee professors from Europe, for reasons that are not clear and definitely not documented in the official history. May be related to the decline of St. Louis as a first-rank and international city during that time. It was a regional school with a large commuter population by 1970. A massive infusion of money and support, primarily from the Danforth family, and being one of the first to figure out the game of providing full scholarships to high schoolers with high academic achievement without regard to their financial need, brought them back into the game by the time the list CR refers to was compiled.

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ZM 11.02.14 at 11:18 pm

“But as a starting point, staying home, no status games would be best. That should reduces commuting costs, rental costs, environmental damage, reduce suicide rates……”

In Australia most students stay in the same State to go to uni. We only have one metropolitan city in each state, so if the students already live in the city they usually stay home. Within the cities there are different universities, with different sorts of reputations and rankings etc. so students have choice. As Australian universities also only have limited on campus accomodation and most students continue living at home or share housing with friends, I don’t think the Australian student experience is as intensely based in university campus culture as it looks like the U.S. one is.

One thing though is that high school school students often will have a basic idea of the status of universities, but unless they have good guidance they won’t know all the detail about which uni focuses on this or that. And high school graduates often start a generalist degree with maybe some intentions of specialisation, but these can change.

High status universities can not focus on preparing students for everything. For example a friend did an undergraduate generalist degree and decided on a different specialisation than she had intended through it. The university offered the specialisation – but its course focused on research and management in the profession – and other universities actually have better reputations as graduating students with practical professional orientations, which is better to start doing before going to management work. It all ended up working out well, but this sort of derailed knowledge about the university was something she learned as she went along, not that she knew as a high school graduate choosing universities.

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Rich Puchalsky 11.02.14 at 11:28 pm

JQ: “I’m surprised that no-one has mentioned one of the most salient aspects of perceptions of universities (at least from this outsider’s point of view) namely whether they are regarded as “party schools”.”

Me @17: “So, without being able to choose a university because a particular program is especially good, they’re thrown back on all the other elements that more or less constitute the university’s collective identity. These may not be academically flattering — “is it a party school?” — but they’re there.”

Often, a lot of what an undergraduate learns is how to handle the adult challenge of being unsupervised at home yet having to attend work and theoretically being productive.

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John Quiggin 11.02.14 at 11:54 pm

Sorry, Rich, missed that

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John Quiggin 11.03.14 at 12:01 am

@103 I certainly can’t claim to be aware of the history of every US institution. But, the points I’d stress from your telling of the story are:

* A lot of mean reversion. Even if a university goes up or down a few spots in the rankings, it is more likely to return to its original position than to keep ascending or declining. The massive infusion of money was presumably related to previous high status

* The specific uses of the money (which also included massive salaries for star faculty, IIRC) look more like breaking “gentlemanly” conventions to jump ahead in research and teaching, rather than exercises in marketing and branding

* Exogenous economic factors: the rise of the UC system, noted in Kieran’s post was an impressive achievement, but of course it reflected the general rise of California

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floopmeister 11.03.14 at 12:07 am

ZM – just down the road from you I think… the motto of my own institution seems to switch between Think Global, ‘I am insert complimentary adjective‘ and Shape the Future. None of which seems to mean anything much.

Oh, and my desk is literally metres away from the gibbet where Mr Kelly was hanged. Make of that what you will…

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Bloix 11.03.14 at 1:01 am

#97 – Your comment tells me that you don’t understand American university reputations at all. You have some data but no context. You should be aware that every modern national research university would be a Class I or Class II. The single criterion used for that list is far too broad to capture the kind of reputational distinctions made by modern applicants and their parents – or by hiring and grant-making committees, for that matter.

It might help for you to read this:
http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/college_guide/feature/the_prestige_racket.php?page=all

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ZM 11.03.14 at 1:11 am

floopmeister,

Oh , how nice – I didn’t realise you were a commenter from Melbourne.

The Redmond Barry – Ned Kelly connections are interesting and always sobering – a reminder of there being two British isles colonial Victorias I think. And both figures Irish, but different sorts. Ned Kelly seems to have become much more familiar and the more compelling figure in our culture overall , but the markers of Redmond Barry throughout Melbourne at least are very apparent as well.

Do you think of the old gaol much being so near? We have an old gaol in my town on top of a hill, and I have always liked it as a view I gave to say. It wasn’t decommissioned until the late 1980s or 1990s so held prisoners for over a century. I went inside for the first times late last year and this year – and the cells were awful. The worst thing I though was not the size (they were very narrow and small), but the lack of wide windows – the windows were high up and very very narrow so as to limit both light and view.

They also used to hang people there, and it is said unmarked graves of prisoners are throughout the lawn and gardens. I am glad we no longer have capital punishment.

But returning to the topic – with Redmond Barry as the first chancellor of the oldest university in the state it does show the relation between authority and order, and the university. And the world outside half strict forbearance and half wild .. Henry Handel Richardson lived partly in the town where I grew up when she was a child. The story of The Getting of Wisdom is of a country girl who wins a place at somewhere like Presbyterian Ladies College – at the end she returns home having graduated after various travails of schooling:

““Oh, what ARE you going to do, Laura?” cried Pin, in anxiety.
“I’m going to have a good run,” said Laura; and tightened her hair-ribbon.
“Oh, but you can’t run in the street! You’re too big. People’ll see you.”
“Think I care? — If you’d been years only doing what you were allowed to, I guess you’d want to do something you weren’t allowed to, too. — Good-bye!”
She was off, had darted away into the leaden heat of the December morning, like an arrow from its bow, her head bent, her arms close to her sides, fleet-footed as a spaniel: Pin was faced by the swift and rhythmic upturning of her heels. …”

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Bloix 11.03.14 at 1:13 am

#102- “the more fools they.People who are applying to colleges really owe it to themselves to investigate particular schools and how good a match they will be…”

There are close to 3000 4-year degree-granting institutions of higher learning in the US. It is impossible for any student or family to investigate all the schools that might be a good fit. And what does a good fit even mean?

Any school that doesn’t try to penetrate the clutter by reaching out to potential students with a message is going to have a hard time attracting the best student body it could have. A school cannot say, “what you think of us is not our problem. You figure us out.”

Messaging can be done crassly and stupidly, or it can be done with sensitivity and intelligence. But it can’t not be done. Failing to have a message is itself a message. I remember going to a college visit at Goucher, and the intro speech and hand-out materials were so clueless that I immediately wrote that school off the list. A similar session at Vassar was so perfectly targeted that I was ready to sign my kid up that day.

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John Quiggin 11.03.14 at 1:22 am

Bloix: At this point, I’m totally lost as to what point you are trying to make, other than demonstrating your mastery of the subtle nuances of ranking systems. As you say, there are thousands of 4-year degree granting institutions in the US. How many, that were not top-100 institutions in (say) 1964 have made it into the top-50 in the subsequent 50 years. How many that were not already top-50 have made it into the top 20? If there are any such instances, has the advance been achieved by marketing and branding or (as apparently in the case of WUSTL’s recovery of its 1911 status) by the injection of large sums of money?

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John Quiggin 11.03.14 at 1:33 am

Reading your link on GWU, it doesn’t seem to support you very strongly

Meanwhile, despite the high tuition, GW’s assault on the upper reaches of higher education status has stalled: the university made it all the way to fifty-first place on the U.S. News list in 2004, just short of tier one, but has fallen back a few spots since. GW seems to have found the upper limits of arriviste institution building in higher education. Other striving campuses, including Boston University, Drexel, and Northeastern, have ended up in similar circumstances. The wrappings have become fancier than ever, but the product inside tastes pretty much the same.

More to the point, in my view, this isn’t about branding and marketing. The Ivies and other top private schools now have acceptance rates of 5 per cent or so, which has allowed the institutions you mentioned to jack up their tuition and still get plenty of wealthy students, displacing the middle-class types described in the lede. As the article says, GWU isn’t exceptional: this is the standard model. The most you could say is that GWU got a jump on some of the others, and a temporary boost as a result.

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floopmeister 11.03.14 at 1:34 am

We have an old gaol in my town on top of a hill, and I have always liked it as a view I gave to say. It wasn’t decommissioned until the late 1980s or 1990s so held prisoners for over a century. I went inside for the first times late last year and this year – and the cells were awful. The worst thing I though was not the size (they were very narrow and small), but the lack of wide windows – the windows were high up and very very narrow so as to limit both light and view.

Apparently the execution space at the old decommissioned Pentridge Prison in Melbourne (once nicknamed the Bluestone Academy – there’s great branding! – and now yuppy apartments) is now a wine cellar:

http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/society-and-culture/prisons-history-is-grim-but-it-fostered-a-humane-society-20101024-16z3y.html

The interesting thing about the Old Melbourne Gaol is that the cubicles are also truly horrible – dehumanising and chilling. Yet during one of the writer’s festivals apparently writers can work in them for the duration of the festival. It always brings to mind ‘starving artists in tiny garret’ or something similar… :)

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Main Street Muse 11.03.14 at 1:47 am

DavidMoz @61″Branding is the deliberate attempt to massage such a personality and reputation into something able to be sold.”

The arrogance of the academic is the belief that universities are not “selling” anything. They are. A degree. And students are going into debt to get their degree. Yes, branding matters. MANY universities have long been adept at leveraging their brands. Sorry to disappoint the intellectuals – but even universities are tainted by “snake oil”- AKA branding. And the best ones are REALLY quite good at massaging and nurturing the brand (UChicago is an outstanding example, FYI.)

Again, there is a difference between branding and BAD branding (the kind JQ notes is happening at Australian universities today “Know more. Do more.” “Where brilliant begins”- that’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad branding that does more harm than good.) To say that “higher ed branding is bad” because some universities are promoting generic, stupid slogans like “Know More. Do More” is like saying higher ed is bad because University of Phoenix is a university designed specifically to funnel Goldman Sachs with more profit. Phoenix is actually just a very bad example of an institution of higher ed.

What is a brand? David Olgivy said a brand is “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” So yes, any university that has an essence, an identity, a character – that intangible sum of all those associations that people understand that university to be – that’s the brand. That doesn’t come from nowhere – it is deliberately managed and groomed by many in the organization.

And the idea that universities are these “communities of disparate intellectuals coming together for intellectual discourse” is a bit of a joke. I’ve spent most of my career in the private sector – I’ve been appalled at the petty nonsense I’ve seen from tenured faculty. See Yale for more on this: http://nyti.ms/10dxKxH

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John Quiggin 11.03.14 at 2:37 am

MSM: A stylistic hint. The use of quotation marks, as in “communities of disparate intellectuals coming together for intellectual discourse” is normally taken to refer to an exact quote, not to putting words into someone else’s mouth for the purpose of triumphantly refuting them.

Please, nothing further from you on this thread.

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hix 11.03.14 at 12:04 pm

My impression (based on no empirical data whatsoever) is not that most real live (prospective undergraduate) students as an average of all social backgrounds actually do make this deliberate effort to get into the highest status school their cv allows them to get into. Not even in the US. Much less in Germany.

The problem im having is that this mode appears to be an ideal. The cultural norm that is set for society as a whole, based mostly on the values of the upper class and upper middle class. An idea how proper well adjusted behaviour is supped to look like, an idea in particular how prospective future (power) elites are supposed to behave.

This is very sad. We had a great thing going in Germany. For a long time every University, every single one of them was considered good enough to rise to the top ranks which helped us to get a more down to earth elite than most other nations. Even when the elites end up being the kids of the former elites, at least they got some exposure during their 20ties to a more diverse range of people. In politics, up untill the new generation of von der Leyens and Guttenbergs*, we even largely had an elite that had genuine middle, sometimees working class backgrounds.

I fear that strongly rank ordered systems, even if the top ranked institutions do give admission to high performing students from poorer backgrounds reinforces a societal system that is not very responsive to the needs of 95% of the population. I dont think quotas can help much either, as they are also set based on upper class consensus and thus do not add responsiveness either.

*Those two are just an embarassement for our country on so many levels. The somewhat on topic one is their academic performance. Theres a limit to how bad someone should be allowed to do in that regard without any good excuse and still be allowed to the top.

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Trader Joe 11.03.14 at 12:44 pm

Two thoughts:

1) Could it be that the sort of branding that the OP disdains has been around for a sufficiently short time that its not really showing up in Kiernan’s class ranking. As far as I can tell modern branding is at most 20-30 years old and many schools have been in the game for far less time than that – given the size boulder that’s being moved (as Kiernan’s analysis showed).

Logically it would take at least 2 generations (i.e. I as a student had a perception I carry as a parent – my child might not share it, but might be open to a new perception vis a vis their child).

2) Isn’t part of the branding to differentiate between schools within the same rank, not only to move between them. If I’m a school in Rank 1, I don’t much care about the rank 2 schools, I only want the best, most talented, most likely to contribute students who are considering Rank 1 schools.

Said differntly – BMW doesn’t care that some people buy Volkswagens – they just want to make sure someone choosing between Cadillac and BMW chooses BMW.

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TM 11.03.14 at 8:03 pm

TH 34: “Every public university should be a mix from philosophy majors to hair-cutting majors to plumbing majors to physics majors. It should be 100% free.”

I agree that students should have the choice to study any of these subjects for free. What I don’t get is why all of this needs to be taught in a single institution, called a university.

120

The Temporary Name 11.03.14 at 8:10 pm

I agree that students should have the choice to study any of these subjects for free. What I don’t get is why all of this needs to be taught in a single institution, called a university.

Dimwits such as myself require a structured learning environment, and governance of that is a good thing. Regarding the single institution, I think a dose of liberal arts as you do science and vice versa are good things. I’m somewhat sad about the current European degree structure.

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TM 11.03.14 at 8:12 pm

MPAV 44, this pretty much sums up how German students select their universities – the location is usually more of a consideration than the institution as such. Besides, universities are identified by the host city. Also, Germans do not usually list the name of the University when they list their credentials. With few exceptions, nobody really cares whether one studied in Munich or Heidelberg or Berlin.

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MPAVictoria 11.03.14 at 8:20 pm

Interesting TM! Thank you.

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Bloix 11.03.14 at 8:54 pm

BTW, the 2002 article you cite from the University of Pennsylvania Gazette is actually a history of campus architecture – for example, debates over whether to preserve the university’s history as represented by its early Victorian buildings (which sit on scarce real estate that could be put to much more productive use) – a significant issue in how a school wants to present itself. “BUILDING Penn’s Brand,” get it? It has little or nothing to do with the kind of marketing that you’re opposed to.

124

TM 11.03.14 at 8:58 pm

[Moderation? Weird. In a nutshell:]

How many liberal arts college students are exposed to hair-cutting 101 or advanced plumbing? Academics who think that hair-cutters need “a dose of liberal arts” as part of their hair-cutting education are just self-important and condescending. There are certainly people who wish to study liberal arts but can’t afford it in our system; but the choice of those who have no interest in academics should be no less respected than the choice of those academics who don’t care to learn plumbing. People have genuinely different preferences. The idea that the sort of education offered in liberal arts colleges is so uniquely relevant that everybody must be exposed to it is absurd.

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AcademicLurker 11.03.14 at 9:23 pm

124: How many liberal arts college students are exposed to hair-cutting 101 or advanced plumbing?

I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. Last I checked, things like hairdressing and plumbing were taught in specialized vocational schools or apprenticeship programs that have nothing to do with universities.*

*Speaking for the U.S. system.

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TM 11.03.14 at 9:25 pm

Responding to 120: “I think a dose of liberal arts as you do science and vice versa are good things.”

How many liberal arts college students are exposed to hair-cutting 101 or advanced plumbing? Academics who think that hair-cutters need “a dose of liberal arts” as part of their hair-cutting education are just self-important and condescending. There are certainly people who wish to study liberal arts but can’t afford it in our system; but the choice of those who have no interest in academics should be no less respected than the choice of those academics who don’t care to learn plumbing. People have genuinely different preferences. The idea that the sort of education offered in liberal arts colleges is so uniquely relevant that everybody must be exposed to it is absurd.

The American obsession with getting as many students as possible into college is huge misguided. Many students do not benefit from an academic education and neither do they like it and there is no good reason why it should be otherwise. The problem in the US is that college is seen as the only imaginable pathway to a decent living standard so many students are coaxed into attending some sort of college, which will do them no good, against their inclination. The German dual academic-vocational system is certainly not perfect but in my experience vastly preferable. Young people have a range of choices (Berufsausbildung, Fachhochschule, Universitaet) and each of them offers real perspectives – a Meister degree is no less prestigious than a University diploma.

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TM 11.03.14 at 9:26 pm

“I think a dose of liberal arts as you do science and vice versa are good things.”

How many liberal arts college students are exposed to hair-cutting 101 or advanced plumbing? Academics who think that hair-cutters need “a dose of liberal arts” as part of their hair-cutting education are just self-important and condescending. There are certainly people who wish to study liberal arts but can’t afford it in our system; but the choice of those who have no interest in academics should be no less respected than the choice of those academics who don’t care to learn plumbing. People have genuinely different preferences. The idea that the sort of education offered in liberal arts colleges is so uniquely relevant that everybody must be exposed to it is absurd.

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TM 11.03.14 at 9:28 pm

[Trying to respond to 120. Something weird going on with moderation.]

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The Temporary Name 11.03.14 at 9:55 pm

AcademicLurker’s response can be mine. I don’t think anyone’s giving out ECTS credit for plumbing in Europe either, and that’s fine by me.

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TM 11.03.14 at 10:05 pm

Confused now. I was responding to TH @34, who said: “Every public university should be a mix from philosophy majors to hair-cutting majors to plumbing majors to physics majors.” I objected (@119) to the idea that everything needs to be taught in a “university”, and you (TTN @120) disagreed with that. Now you agree with AL @126 who disagrees with TH.

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The Temporary Name 11.03.14 at 10:08 pm

My apologies for confusing you TM: it appears I have confused myself as well. Carry on.

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TM 11.03.14 at 10:09 pm

What I’m getting at of course is the very American idea that “education”=”college/university”. It doesn’t and it shouldn’t but in the US context, it is widely perceived that only a college degree offers a chance to a decent living standard, hence all the fuss about getting more “kids” into college, and then hand-wringing their about college-readiness and what not. Many students do not benefit from an academic education and neither do they like it and there is no good reason why it should be otherwise. The German dual academic-vocational system is certainly not perfect but in my experience vastly preferable. Young people have a range of choices (Berufsausbildung, Fachhochschule, Universitaet) and each of them offers real perspectives – a Meister degree is no less prestigious than a University diploma.

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TM 11.03.14 at 10:10 pm

What I’m getting at of course is the very American idea that “education”=”college/university”. It doesn’t and it shouldn’t but in the US context, it is widely perceived that only a college degree offers a chance to a decent living standard, hence all the fuss about getting more “kids” into college, and then hand-wringing their about college-readiness and what not. Many students do not benefit from an academic education and neither do they like it and there is no good reason why it should be otherwise. The German dual academic-vocational system is certainly not perfect but in my experience vastly preferable.

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The Temporary Name 11.03.14 at 10:20 pm

The German dual academic-vocational system is certainly not perfect but in my experience vastly preferable.

I’m not sure what the difference is there between the German and American system. There are trade schools in both cases, aligned to particular needs, and lots of kids from high school go to them. Maybe the difference you perceive is credentialism post-university/college, in which a degree is a requirement for a variety of mundane jobs that require nothing of relevance from academia.

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TM 11.03.14 at 10:40 pm

The systems are vastly different. In Germany, a vocational apprenticeship is considered no less prestigious than a University degree. There is no perception that without an academic degree, you are doomed to flipping burgers. The perception as such may be exaggerated – American plumbers do have excellent prospects – but you can’t deny it exists. And of course it is by and large borne out by the data – those without degrees make significantly less and have vastly inferior career chances. It is with those data in mind that politicians and pundits and education experts are ceaselessly talking up the need for increasing access to higher education. I never ever hear anybody (in the US) advocate for increasing access to vocational education. Also, I note that Census and Labor Department data on educational attainment do not even mention vocational education as a possibility – they are divided into those with, and those without college degrees. There isn’t even a data category that captures those who have completed vocational school (unless they school was categorized as a “college”). It seems that US vocational schools aren’t even deemed worth a statistical category, which speaks to their reputation.

As to the actual vocational training system, the German model is different in that the apprenticeship in an actual business is a vital part of that education. It’s not trade school and perhaps an internship, it’s a formal apprenticeship that spans several years, complemented by trade school.

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