Do words count? Modern marketing meets academia
A memorable moment at William Deresiewicz Excellent Sheep: The Poor Education of the American Elite and the Path to a Meaningful Life draws the reader’s attention to the ubiquity of academic mission statements reduced to Twitter-friendly minimalism, citing among the more mundane examples “Think big. We do.” and “Enter. Stand out.”
From one perspective, these slogans are innocuous embodiments of modern commercial branding in the academy. They certainly resemble corporate logos (such as Nike’s “Just do it!”) more than the long history of other, more powerful and superficial statements of religious belief, philosophical speculation, or political action. Think, for example, of the world summoned by MLK’s phrase “I have a dream,” or the deep resonances of “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
This obvious alignment of corporate marketing strategies with university “brands” might give pause to the politicized professor and the idealistic student. But when I learned that Eastern Canada’s largest university had recently embarked on a famous rebranding process (which included the remarkable assertion that brands, like people, have personalities), I suspected that commercial college mottos could be illuminating in ways that went beyond their mere capitulation to my short attention span and schlock tolerance.
Significant in Eastern Canada for both its size and research capacity, Dalhousie University is located in Halifax, a seaside town whose working-class roots and histories of class and racial resilience, as well as conflicts, are always in evidence at the edges of a local and trendy retail boom. Ranked thirteenth university in the country by the annual report Maclean’s and tenth in terms of quality, Dalhousie is an institution with the commitments it proudly proclaims. Commitments are par for the course in modern higher education communities and include a well-intentioned dedication to equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility.
And this is where a new college slogan gets interesting.
Dalhousie announced the slogan as part of its rebranding process that is, at first glance, innocuous enough: “Where infinite ambition meets global impact.” My first response to its unveiling was that it was another moment of marketing gibberish in a world that has no shortage of the same.
But as I pondered the new tagline, I began to wonder if these were, to paraphrase Wendell Berry, words we could stick with. And if we take them as a true articulation of the university’s mission in the modern world? What if they are not meant to immediately blend into the background noise of contemporary culture, but require some kind of assent from students, staff and faculty? And if brands have personality, what kind of personalities could boast endless ambition in pursuit of global impact?
If we dwell on Dalhousie’s latest motto, a surprising and disturbing set of historical associations is evoked, despite the undoubtedly positive intentions of its authors.
Against the backdrop of an institution ostensibly committed to Indigenousness and celebrating Nova Scotia’s Black history, Dalhousie’s new slogan feels more like a callback to the days of the conquistadors than an ideal motto. for an inclusive place of higher education. What drove Cortez and his gang when they sacked Tenochtitlan, if not endless ambition in pursuit of global impact? What made the different ages of Empire, east and west, so powerfully expansive, other than an endless ambition aimed at global consequences? And what is the explicit warning in Mary Shelley’s remarkable novel, Frankenstein, when it challenges both the romantic genius and the romantic explorer? He surely presciently and persuasively urges his reader to move away from “infinite ambition” driven by a desire for “global impact”.
What I hope to make here is that Dalhousie’s new slogan seems to run entirely counter to the institution’s so-called moral stances, which are almost entirely local (not global) and largely aimed at to redress historic moments when an overabundance of ambition caused deep hardship to the colonized peoples of the Maritimes. Regardless of whether finite beings box possess infinite ambition (a matter not without a philosophical history), Dalhousie’s new brand emerges at a political and cultural moment when a rediscovery of humility, boundaries, locality and self-examination is presupposed by all Dalhousie’s political commitments.
But there is more.
Arguably, Dalhousie’s new slogan indicates that the humanities have ceased to possess a strong and convincing claim to the priorities of the institution. Even a superficial familiarity with the histories of world literature makes it clear that there is simply no way, from the point of view of the humanities, to affirm as wise or simple the phrase “infinite ambition”. Whether it is the traditions of wisdom that anchored the university to its medieval origins, or the ideas of the ancient Greeks, or the Renaissance plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare, or the more recently recorded sayings of native elders and of the work of decolonization, all agree that unlimited ambition is the source not of human flourishing but of communal and personal destruction.
Although humans can be called to greatness (as Dalhousie probably hopes this particular slogan suggests), that greatness, so far as can be discerned from the collective wisdom of past millennia, depends on an appreciation of fragility. human, of the remarkable capacity of people to adapt to the poor. judgment and self-deception, and the habits of self-examination that insist on a relationship between the order of our inner lives and the order (or disorder) we impose on the world .
Slogans like “Dalhousie: where we discover our limits and think of our neighbours” might not energize the community that the rebranding of Dalhousie is supposed to involve (and which is destined to be engaged is a profound and puzzling question). But that the new slogan is morally malleable and can be imagined as easily on t-shirts advocating some form of neo-colonialism as on college letterhead should give pause.
More importantly, that he calls on Dalhousie to look and think globally when there are real continuing needs in the province, which funds the University in part, and among the very people the University claims to privilege (faculty are encouraged to include specific reference to Indigenous and African Nova Scotians on their electronic signature lines), is at the very least a sign that those who endorsed the slogan have lost sight of the tireless work of faculty, whose research, community engagement and teaching are somehow rooted in local living conditions in the Maritimes.
It may not be fair to chastise Dalhousie for following the practices of most sister institutions. I don’t mean that an east coast university’s marketing strategies are intentionally malicious. Marketers do what they are hired to do. Thoughtful people do what they can. And Dalhousie is not without remarkable teachers who can soften, reinterpret or even challenge the assumptions embedded in the institutional slogan, “Where infinite ambition meets global impact.”
Nonetheless, the case of Dalhousie is worth pondering, as branding and rebranding are becoming the order of the day in higher education venues and beyond. Not only should the language of “brands” provoke a response from faculty and students for its explicit imposition of a customer relationship model on a university’s educational culture and its universal reduction of students to consumers, but the ambiguity morality of many new brands (like Dalhousie’s) should prompt us to a new and deeper exploration of whether and how words matter.
Perhaps most importantly, Dalhousie’s new brand could be questioned for its failure to observe that an authentic education (if it is worth anything) is actually training in the wisdoms that deter individuals from cancerous assertion. that ambition, rather than attention or curiosity or reflection or humility, is the key gift that learning offers.
Strangely, Dalhousie founding motto“Ora and Labora(pray and work), is a not insignificant old adage, although I admit that it may be an impossible modern slogan for a modern institution. While there may be a cultural expectation that students work, there is clearly no easy way for a modern secular college to stick to prayer as a constituent aspect of the educational process. Fair enough.
And yet, for all that, the founding motto has at least two things that recommend it. First, it channels, through a curiously Presbyterian mediation, the motto of Benedictine monasticism, thus evoking another world governed by rhythms of contemplation, fraternity and mutual service. These rhythms are ultimately not so far removed from the elusive culture of well-being and collegiality sought with so much determination (and financial investment) by contemporary schools. But secondly, this historical motto also suggests that contemplation or reflection rightly precedes action. To read the motto under the aegis of modern pressures, education promises a reflective posture in a militant era.
All this can make a mountain out of a molehill. University slogans are certainly a species of public literature which, like most quick phrases of the time, neither deserves nor expects much attention. And yet, if words mean anything and if institutions are to be governed by visions of one sort or another, we might at least wonder what Dalhousie means by its rebranding strategy, whether it includes a moral imperative or whether it is totally amoral, and how it might be recognizable from a distance by previous generations of educators or life-giving for future generations of learners.
It can be said that ambition is integral to success in the world, but the cultivation of ambition is not really the job of a university. The work of a university is meditation, the cultivation of slowness in a world of speed, the suggestion (to accept or reject) that people are not fundamentally consumers or even producers, but a particular species of thinkers , even of lovers, whose most fundamental task may be, in the end, not to amplify their ambitions, but to direct and tame them.