Cults of personality and the name game

The Great Leader is all smiles on the website – Gloria Monday suspects that a rebranding is in the offing

March 17, 2008

There’s a rumour going round that we are going to be rebranded. I heard it from our mole in the central administration, the Stasi Central Bureau, as it’s referred to locally. Nobody seems to know where this rumour started, but my money is on our new registrar, Wee Tommie, he of the straggly white hair, rattlesnake eyes and Napoleon complex. He’s obviously trying to make his mark with Big D, the vice-chancellor, who tries to please everyone and fails all round.

I got a shock earlier this term when I opened the university’s home page and saw a full-frontal photo of Big D, teeth fixed in a rictus smile, wishing us all a happy New Year. What an unenticing image to put on a website! Surely they could have come up with something better – even a snap of bored students throwing empty cans at one another as they queued to get into the unfinished library extension would have been more appealing.

Suspecting the dead hand of Wee Tommie, I checked out a few other websites to see if ours was an aberration; but no, it seems to be a trend. Vice-chancellors of all shapes and sizes, and even the odd female (but all, I note, white), have apparently been advised to feature themselves prominently on their university home pages. Some sit awkwardly staring past the camera, the odd one fixes you with a basilisk stare, but mercifully most of them can be seen only from the neck upwards. There’s a limit to university budgets after all, and paying someone to airbrush beer bellies is probably beyond the means of most institutions.

But what can this trend mean, I ask myself? They certainly don’t come across as pin-ups, so I can conclude only that trying to be seen as the image of the institution itself comes from some deep-rooted desire to be hailed as a Great Leader. Stalin was plastered all over the place, Honecker glared out of the lobby of every public building in East Germany, and Mao was on everything that didn’t move. Someone gave me a vase once with Mao’s fat face painted on it. It looks a treat with daffodils in it, and every spring I think of it as a sort of post-Communist art installation.

So when I saw Big D looking uncomfortable, I guessed there might be something behind it, although I hadn’t twigged that he might be leading us into rebranding ourselves. Friends in other places that have been rebranded have all kinds of stories to tell. You have to ditch all the headed stationery for a start, then banners appear round the place in the new corporate colours. Thousands of pounds change hands for a new logo so you can call yourself “X University” instead of the “University of X”, which is supposed to appeal more to the punters.

Apparently, the University of Central England, where I once gave a lecture to half a dozen students, is now to be known as Birmingham City University, which, given that there’s a University of Birmingham in the city already, is going to confuse plenty of people.

Why is it that when vice-chancellors and registrars move to a new place, the first thing they do is either set about dismantling systems that have worked well for years or get into rebranding? I suppose Wee Tommie has convinced Big D that if we rebrand ourselves we’ll be one step on the way to being noticed somewhere beyond a 50-mile radius.

I shall wait until one of those spurious “consultation exercises” comes round seeking our views on what has already been decided. My offering is going to be a rebrand with a catchy acronym: the First Universal Concentrated Knowledge University. That should give us a bit of international recognition.

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