Quality vs Baloney

Everyone has heard superlatives about UC Berkeley: numbers of Nobel Prize winners on the faculty, top world rankings in hard and applied sciences, best public university in the world, etc., etc. And the students it attracts or attracted: one former colleague, the valedictorian of his high school class, who had his wedding reception at the Faculty Club, a lovely old building designed by the peerless local architect Bernard Maybeck; another, admitted at the age of fourteen after getting a perfect SAT score, studying philosophy under John Searle of the famous “Chinese Room Argument;” etc., etc. And the place: situated on a hillside with splendid views of San Francisco Bay when fog permits, the tallest hardwood stand in the country in one of its groves; a stream flowing through the campus, bordered by canyon walls, a botanical garden, and in these straitened days, planting a bit more disheveled than formerly, etc., etc.[1]

This needs “rebranding”? Someone evidently thinks so. The University has an office of “marketing communications,” and this office has devised a “plan,” called Onward California, “meant to give the university a new visual identity, attract new students and articulate a vision for its schools.” Just what a splendid-looking campus with excellent students and carefully planned programs needs. The office thought the University’s 19th-Century seal, with its book and rays of metaphorical light, was too old-fashioned, and tried replacing it in “marketing communications” with a bizarre shield that looks like a dented blue and gold washing machine.

Students and alumni think of the university as a functional community, and a pretty good one. They do not think of themselves as collectively needing a makeover with a nip and tuck here and a washing machine there. And they are right: a fine university is not improved by branding and baloney. It is improved by the public’s unpropaganzided conviction that a splendid public university and public schools are a precious resource. For a while it looked as if California was moving away from this conviction. Perhaps it still is, but recent events may suggest otherwise. Groups of Californians both large and small seem to be deciding that in a real community some things are worth paying for, e.g., the state’s voting in Proposition 30 to raise taxes for schools, universities, and other programs, and the City of Alameda’s voting in a property tax surcharge for its public schools. And they seem to be deciding that some things, like branding makovers, are nonsense. Alumni even got the washing machine banned. These good moves are very promising, though I would be pleased also to see the office of marketing communications closed, its funding applied to hire gardeners and maintenance crews. Splendid schools and universities don’t just exist; they don’t just appear as if in a glossy brochure; they are made and kept that way, both physically and intellectually, by real communities at real work.

[1] The campus is such a cynosure that people try to drive and park there, but parking on campus is usually strictly forbidden. Exceptions are the university’s Nobel laureates, who receive campus-parking permits. Saul Perlmutter, a Physics Prize winner, famously said that the reason to get a Nobel Prize is to be able to park on campus.

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