Broncos, pirates, professors: all powerless before corporate march

Restructures and rebrandings of public universities are taking a toll on mascots and more, says Robert Lee Maril

May 28, 2015
From Where I Sit illustration (28 May 2015)

Rain and a blustery wind spoiled the big reveal of the Bronze Bronc statue, a weighty upgrade on Bucky the Bronc, the moth-eaten mascot for the basketball team at one of my former universities, the University of Texas-Pan American. Our university hoopsters on the Mexican border often lost by double or triple digits. Bucky was less an indomitable mustang, more a bipolar donkey on the skids.

A substantial chunk of alloy created by a “renowned artist” from another state, the Bronze Bronc was unveiled in 2002 and was a welcome reinforcement to his foppish counterpart. “Nuevo Bronc” stood on his concrete plinth as if eternally ready to charge headlong anyone doubting the credibility or virtue of the university’s sports teams, students, faculty and administrators.

So the colourful mariachis played on loudly, if not well, at the games; the dignitaries rendered their dreary speeches; and hope sprang eternal among the gathered crowd.

Imagine, then, the pushback a decade later when UTPA’s “athletic branding committee” selected a new mascot, the “Vaquero”, to replace both the Bronze Bronc and sidekick Bucky the Bronc. The vaquero “embodies strength, determination, pride and respect”, we were told. We also got a new motto: “We are one”.

In the corporatisation of many US public universities, rebranding and marketing includes not only the renaming of football stadiums and library carrels in honour of donors, but also the reshuffling of the basic principles on which our institutions rest. Students are now customers.

At East Carolina University, my current institution, the sports mascot PeeDee the Pirate was turned from a ferocious marauder into a Disneyesque metrosexual with a smile any orthodontist would be proud of. There was also a five-year, consultant-driven university reorganisation mandated by our state legislature.

With the new mascot came the expected paraphernalia: hats, wallets, jackets, number-plate frames, infant clothing, jewellery, children’s toys and games, sunglasses, key chains, coffee mugs, rainwear, luggage and the “East Carolina Pirates Vintage Art Glass Night Light”.

Also came the new university motto: “Tomorrow starts here”.

Leaving aside just where tomorrow really begins, along with the new mascot and the new motto marched the purposeful commodification of most educational goods and services, including the professoriate. Like many others, I remain unsure how faculty fit into a system in which public resources are privatised and no one seems to notice.

Included in this backstage list fabricated by highly paid consultants is the deskilling of university faculty, university instructors paid poverty wages, the fetishising of assessment and its metrics, the proliferation of online classes taken by resident students and the assumed professional superiority of all staff winning research grants.

As graduation events come and go this year, I see far too many of my student-customers ushered off the graduation stage with no clue as to what they have learned or why they have learned it. As they begin their careers, these same student-customers are frequently burdened by outlandish debts.

After our restructure, faculty seem left with little function, place or role in educational institutions reconstructed to ape industrial parks. This new system does nothing but leave the professoriate courtside with little to do but cheer on our student-customers to supposed victory – just like the Vaquero and PeeDee the Pirate.

Robert Lee Maril is professor of sociology, East Carolina University.

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