Seals culled: symbolic shift signals rise of the market

But losing the owls from university brands may not be such a wise move. Matthew Reisz reports

October 18, 2012

The decline of wise owls and open books as university emblems has more than symbolic significance, a leading researcher on globalisation has argued.

It was while listening to a colleague's boring lecture that Gili Drori, associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found her attention wandering to his PowerPoint slides and the university emblem at their corners. This led her to reflect on how institutions' traditional seals (once used to authenticate formal documents), torches of enlightenment and Latin mottoes are being replaced by abstract modern logos.

"I call it the 'McDonaldisation' of the university," she said. "Just as the Golden Arches give you no clue that the place makes hamburgers, fries and milkshakes, there is no connection between what we do and how we represent our identity."

Perhaps this offered an interesting way to track the increasing managerialism and marketisation of universities, Professor Drori thought. So she joined forces with Giuseppe Delmestri, director of the Institute for Organizational Studies at Johannes Kepler University, Linz, and Achim Oberg, a scholar at the University of Mannheim, to obtain information on the emblems of all the universities in 24 countries and a sample from the US - just over 1,000 institutions in all.

In a forthcoming paper, "Branding the university", they argue that "iconography reflects the transition of the institution of the university from a 'Republic of Scholars' into 'an organization'".

One notable rebranding flop they highlight occurred when Drake University in the US was persuaded by a design agency to change its traditional bookish seal into the logo "D+" - until someone pointed out that this represented a poor mark.

Other examples, report the authors, include new logos for Rice University's athletics teams that "transform the owl of erudition into a bird of prey", while even "small and highly localized universities" are rebranding themselves to express their "international mission".

When the results were presented in Mannheim, recalled Professor Drori, a professor at the university was shocked to see that it was one of the institutions that had surrendered the word veritas (Latin for "truth") from its symbol.

"At the same time, there's a big scandal going on (at Mannheim) about a professor plagiarising his own work. So universities voluntarily surrender the term veritas and professional icons on their official seals - and the professional norms that go along with them are being infringed as well," she said.

"The rush for branding" might be less evident in elite universities, but Professor Drori believed it had become "a fever" among those ranked in the top 500 but not the top 50 in the world.

Although well aware that logos and seals are just "the visual tip of the iceberg" of much wider trends, she was surprised by how readily "academics had surrendered even the symbols. That is the last place we might expect managerialism to show its imprint."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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