Slogans are no substitute for concrete university policies and programmes

Marketing claims are often empty, unaccompanied by comprehensive policies, plans, timetables or evaluation criteria, says Harvey Graff

January 17, 2022
A 'tutoring success' slogan on balloons illustrating an opinion article by Harvey J. Graff on university slogans
Source: iStock

When I was recruited for my first full-time postgraduate teaching position at the newly expanding University of Texas at Dallas in 1975, I was among a large group of new faculty lured by claims of an unusually innovative “interdisciplinary” university.

The institution began as a graduate-only institution in the sciences when Texas Instruments shifted its increasingly expensive Southwest Center for Advanced Studies (SCAS) to the state of Texas in exchange for its transition to a university. “Interdisciplinarity” was part of its marketing. In practice, though, this meant substantial cost savings by eliminating separate departments and their support. In a few years, the university added disciplinary departments (but without their necessary support) and quietly dropped the empty founding slogans.

Nevertheless, leadership by sloganeering has grown relentlessly over the subsequent decades – as has the gap between the claims and the realities. The slogans themselves come increasingly from campus marketing departments that are ignorant of academic missions, as well as from corporate agents and marketing firms further removed. But university leaders happily trumpet them, in the misguided belief that they constitute bold “visions” for the institutional future.

Slogans come in two major forms. The oldest and most prevalent forms are generically inspirational and aspirational, such as most of the 60 leading examples on the Slogan Slingers website. They include: “The wind of freedom blows”, from Stanford University; “Minds move mountains”, from the University of Oregon; and “No one like you. No place like this”, from the University of North Florida. Immerse yourself.

The second form is more self-consciously and actively promotional, with explicit claims, sales pitches, fundraising and public relations campaigns. They simultaneously attempt to meet a perceived need and to create one.

Slogan Slingers asserts that “it has never been more competitive for universities and colleges to recruit students”. Hence, they are using taglines “now more than ever” because they help them “seal their identity and solidify their brand. The more the students become familiar with a school slogan, the higher the emotional attachment.”

Indeed, universities and colleges also compete fiercely for philanthropic donations and state appropriations. Is it not understandable, then, that American university presidents resort to slogans and even empty promises in such an environment? Isn’t their public-facing role precisely to attract attention and funding, as opposed to resolving more everyday issues and disputes?

But presidents are not trained marketers or sloganeers. That is not in their job description, and for good reasons. They are the chief officers of their institutions. And overseeing a campus, large or small, public or private, is a full-time job – even if most of the presidents I have known never quite grasped that.

Moreover, there is no evidence that leading by sloganeering results in more than empty rhetoric; disappointed hopes; and disaffected faculty, staff, students and benefactors – not to mention frequent changes in leader. Slogans are rarely, if ever, accompanied by comprehensive policies, concrete plans and timetables for implementation, and criteria for evaluation or metrics. That’s a different department or consultant, and the president rarely sees fit to connect them up.

The consequences of sloganeering in all the institutions I have worked at have been negative and contradictory to the declared goals. Take Ohio State University, whose former president E. Gordon Gee presided over a largely unattempted transition to “One Ohio State”, in which institutional fractures were all miraculously healed.

Gee also oversaw the adoption of the slogan “do something big” – later amended to “do something great”. The Columbus Dispatch reported in 2001 that “though the goal is to change OSU’s image from that of just a football school, the new slogan will be introduced to the public during a football game”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the notion of “remaking its image from gridiron great to academic powerhouse” was ultimately scrapped.

Gee’s successors trod in his tracks, but with less marketing prowess. Michael Drake, president between 2014 and 2020, never understood the large, complicated university. His “2020 Vision: Access, Affordability and Excellence” did not recognise its own contradictions. It translated into freezing in-state tuition, increasing the privatisation of major assets, and creating “economies and efficiencies”. Buying toilet paper from a single vendor and double-sided colour-copying were most often mentioned. Constrained salary increases and substantial staffing reductions – but not, contrary to promises, of overabundant, overpaid administrators – was never acknowledged.

New president Kristina Johnson told the Columbus Dispatch in 2020 that, despite the pandemic, “every challenge has showed her that Ohio State can achieve one very big goal: becoming the best land-grant university in the nation”. No definition or measure is stated.

Equally opaquely, Johnson is verbally committed to “lead[ing] the nation as the first university to offer a zero-debt bachelor’s degree at scale”. At her delayed investiture last November, she announced the “Scarlet and Gray Advantage plan”. But there are no sources for its funding: $800 million (£583 million) must be raised over the next decade. And, for its inaugural Class of 2026, only 125 of more than 10,000 OSU students will be included in a “pilot” programme

To observe that the devil is in the details barely scratches the surface. Can the American university avoid imploding into the vacuum of sloganeering? I have serious doubts. 

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history and Ohio Eminent Scholar at Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history. His specialties include the history and present condition of literacy and education including higher education, children and families, cities, interdisciplinarity, and contemporary politics, culture, and society.

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Reader's comments (1)

As long as there are incentives and rewards for BS, there will not be an end to sloganeering. There will always be opportunists and fair weather operators out to take advantage of it. Start a new slogan, new project prefereably a long term one and move on before the birds come home to roost (that will only happen in the long run..but in the long run there will be other slogans and projects brought in by other people.. and on it goes). That is the name of the game if you havent noticed. For the cynics, remember "It is the journey that matters not the destination". The agency problems in universities are worthy of a book!