UMass, hold the Amherst
In this era of college corporatization and globalization, no school wants to be left in the financial dust when oil money beckons. So, colleges across America are dropping regional “modifiers” to their official names — part of an attempt to polish their global brands, and perhaps attract offers from willing emirs. The Boston Globe’s Peter Schworm reported on August 18 that a debate has erupted at the University of Massachusetts’s “flagship” campus, UMass-Amherst. Alumni and administrators fear that the current hyphenated moniker will put the university at a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis other state universities that have shed the location from their names — the University of Missouri-Columbia, for one, eliminated “Columbia” from its name to avoid a “regional connotation.” The issue goes beyond symbolism, administrators claim, and affects recruiting of faculty and students, as well as landing contributions. “More universities,” Schworm wrote, “have turned to branding and strategic marketing specialists to burnish their image.”
Is this development unrelated to branch campus expansion in the Gulf? Far from it. In the aforementioned race to establish a communication school in Qatar’s Education City, one school that was passed over, despite having the country’s oldest journalism program, was the University of Missouri — as mentioned above, then-known as the University of Missouri-Columbia. About a year later, the “Columbia” tag was dropped. And though the PR office and professors alike claim there was no connection, there is undoubtedly a common thread: money. Corporate universities, whether through global partnerships or alumni donations, are looking constantly to pad their bottom line by enhancing their brand, their image, their connections.
Deep pockets, thin skin
Any perceived threat to a university’s financial standing is also now swiftly extinguished, regardless of academic consequences. The ringleaders in this endeavor are university lawyers (known as “general counsel”) who keep their institutions out of legal trouble by declining to take risks. Though this may sound like a no-brainer, an overly cautious approach has proven dangerous to the free exchange of ideas that characterizes academia. Some degree of risk is, after all, inherent in cutting-edge thinking and teaching. But the lawyers’ rationale is known in both the legal and insurance industries as “risk reduction” — avoiding pricey court battles that may sully the school’s reputation and purse. Thus, these lawyers are tasked with advising — often dictating — certain campus rules and practices that mimic the private corporate sector. For instance, virtually all major corporations have adopted speech and behavior codes to prevent employees or supervisors from causing even the slightest discomfort for fellow workers and subordinates on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation, among other categories into which humans are sorted these days.
So, too, have campus lawyers advised universities to adopt restrictive speech and behavior codes. Unlike business corporations, however, properly functioning universities produce not widgets but free and inquisitive minds. Hence, campus restrictions on student and faculty speech interfere with the main “product” of higher education, namely critical thought shaped in an atmosphere of free speech and academic freedom. In recent years, these general counsel (and their mode of thinking) have attained an increasingly important position on campus. It is no coincidence that the Harvard general counsel’s office is right next to that of the president.