Apart from the strategic planning sessions, focus group polling, and glossy brochures, I like to think there exists some kind of collective soul at the core of a university—not a living, breathing thing capable of articulating itself but, rather, a sort of impression that’s mainly crafted by students… an identity, a shared understanding, an ideal… and a hope for the future.
That student-formed vision often runs up against the realities of the marketing campaigns that Admissions pumps out to boost our rankings and, ultimately, the quality of incoming classes—however they choose to define that.
We’ve reported on parts of this before; for example, there was Oberlin’s adoption of a cheesy new slogan: “We are Oberlin. Fearless.” The same marketing agency that created that gem was also the one that spun our very own “Independent Ivy” campaign back in ’98-’99, which led to much student protest.
Isn’t it only a matter of time before the next hired gun pumps out another catchy, bold, and fearless media message for Wesleyan? (Sorry, Admissions: “The Art and Science of Education Since 1831” isn’t catchy, bold, or fearless.) Isn’t it time we became more aware of the marketing messages being cultivated by the administration? Isn’t it time we thought about where we want Wesleyan to go?
This was all brought to the surface by a confluence of factors: the Roth administration’s clamping down on things like Zonker Harris Day, its refusal to let the chalking moratorium lapse, and its general reluctance to support “things that are stupid”—all the while defining “stupid” as whatever, in its opinion, it thinks will turn away the kind of high school students it wants to attract. It’s that thinking that leads our president to say things like:
“Zonker Harris day should not be on the calendar next year, and it won’t be,” Roth said. “The institution should make it clear that it’s not supporting things that are stupid.”
What an efficient way to do away with decades of tradition for the sake of robbing the Ivies of a few of their potential students…
And then, Andrea Silenzi ’07 sent us an NPR report by Dan Bobkoff ’05, bringing Oberlin’s advertising campaign back into the news (bonus: they play MGMT’s “Kids” at the end of the segment).
I listened, and was particularly struck by one section:
It’s too early to know if the strategy is resonating with prospective students. Consultants hired by Oberlin say it’s polling well in ongoing focus groups.
And then it hit me: is this how we’re going to define the soul of Wesleyan? Does our school’s image depend on the results of focus groups, opinion polls, and target demographics, or does it depend on us?
Here’s hoping for the latter.