Higher education in Minnesota has been schooled by the Auggies.
Last Wednesday, Augsburg College publicly took a stand stating its opposition to the amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would only recognize marriage as “between one man and one woman.” Their university president, Paul Pribbenow, took the book on “best practices of ‘playing it safe’ in university management” and boldly threw it out the window. In one statement the school publicly asserted its values. It engaged the world. It refuted the homogenous nature of bland meaningless brand advertising and asserted an authentic uniqueness in the realm of higher education. All institutions of higher education in Minnesota are no longer the same. After last Wednesday’s announcement, there is Augsburg College and there are the rest.
For at least the past year Augsburg has had an advertising campaign with the tagline, “We are called Auggies.” The attractive ads have an inviting color palate and a hip, informal spray-paint stenciled font that has an energetic, urban quality to it. Featuring smiling, happy “Auggie” undergrads, an advertising video tells us they are: Informed citizens, Thoughtful stewards, Critical Thinkers and Responsible Leaders. While clever, at first blush there is nothing in the Augsburg advertising that appears that different from any other institution of higher education. Appearances, however, can be deceiving.
These days, if you are not Harvard, Duke, Hopkins or Berkeley, you need to advertise. Indeed, it is a powerful marketing alchemy that tries to make undergraduate schools seem dramatically different. Whether Auggies, Gophers, Wildcats, Johnnies, or Pipers the pitches are strikingly similar—smiling undergrads, the promise of meaningful experiences, school spirit, college tee shirts. Everyone will be leaders. Everyone will make a difference. Students succeed. Students volunteer. Students make a difference. Good Times.
The curious thing about marketing is that it urgently proclaims distinction with a shiny, glossy, predictable homogeneity. This is the result, no doubt, of following the standardized “best practices” of advertising and marketing taught in business schools. For those who think of higher education as a marketplace, it is only natural to sell the “product” using the marketing formulas and mythical jargon of the business world—”leveraging assets,” “creating and marketing experiences,” “building loyalty,” “maintaining a consistent product,” “delivering value.” McDonalds, KFC, Coca Cola and Nike. Starbucks, Chipotle, Culvers and Apple.
Brand your school.
There is, however, a huge difference between a product—a Big Mac, a Pepsi, PC or iPhone—and a school. The product is designed and manufactured by people. The school is the people. Every university has buildings, grounds, landscaping and some are more or less well endowed. The difference that counts, however, the real value of a school, is in the people: the students, professors, adjuncts, staff, cleaning people, security officers and other employees that are the university. This is no doubt why universities are infused with an egalitarian ethos and concerned with equality, equity and fairness—and why dramatic disparities in salary, power or authority are not tolerated. Inequality corrodes trust. Lack of trust erodes the community that is needed to function.
Community is a popular word these days that I use with trepidation. It has been my experience that quite often “community” is invoked by marketers and other interests as a rhetorical device to tell a group what they are or what they should be—to speak for and on behalf of others—as a means of imposing an identity on a group. Universities have actually existing communities that are real. And, I imagine, the reason that marketing often seems so shallow, hollow and inauthentic is because of its disconnect with the real community of everyday interactions. Advertisements often tell a group who they are or should be, instead of listening to the people who work, live and function together. Communities have a common purpose for being together. Communities are committed to working through conflicts together. Communities have a shared history. Communities don’t always agree.
People know their community, and they know when marketing is bullshit. How do I know they know? Because they chuckle at it. They laugh at it. They tell its jokes and they ridicule it behind its back. Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher, wrote a very short and accessible book describing the nature of bullshit. It is a fantastic volume, appropriately titled On Bullshit, that should be required reading for every leader—political, business, academic or otherwise. In it, Frankfurt offers a number of excellent observations about the nature of bullshit,
For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false, but that it is phony…What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern for the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong. (46)
[The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. (60)
Brands are bullshit.
Brands must be bullshit because they homogenize an educational community, water it down, commodify it and try to sell it as something it is not. They impose a smily face on things because smiles sell. They do not allow for conflict or discussion or truth, because they are more concerned with customer satisfaction. Market research. Polling. Profits. Customer satisfaction and education don’t mix—because they can’t. Learning is concerned with truth and criticism and analysis. Its fundamental orientation is toward discovering the unknown, not settling for the known. It is supposed to be a place for experimenting, making mistakes, and tolerating misunderstandings. Higher education maximizes freedoms by confronting injustices. It is supposed to be subversive, because subverting what is accepted requires the most creativity. When it is good, it is supposed to be uncomfortable. When it is great it is supposed to shake one’s foundations.
These days one hears a lot about how higher education should be more connected to the “real world.” (Try telling my students that their multiple part time jobs and student loans aren’t real and I’ll forgive them if they kick you in the shins, or burst into tears.) Often the voices that advocate most loudly for “getting out of the ivory tower” are those who want to connect students directly to jobs or volunteering—turning universities into job training or places to feel good. Curiously, most discussions of “connecting to the real world” rarely mean engaging in politics. In fact, there is a strong aversion to politics—internships and volunteering are routinely disconnected from academic work and depoliticized.
The talking heads of conservative talk radio rant about how the university is politicized and full of radical professors, but this is bullshit too—a rhetorical boogyman. Universities these days are supremely concerned with not offending anyone. Offend students, and they will leave. Offend donors and they won’t donate. Take a stand on anything and someone might disagree. The more important the issue, the more lives it affects, the more liklihood for disagreement, the more risky the stand, the greater the caution. Especially in periods of economic uncertainty risk should be avoided. Best to put a smile on it. It is best to simply stick to best practices and “deliver the product” and keep everyone happy.
If there is a handbook for best practices of leadership in American higher education, I’m sure the section dealing with “Hot Button Political Issues” has a single entry in boldface that says, “RUN!!”
Yet everything that really matters in our lives is decided in the halls of political power: public infrastructure, schools, jobs, social welfare, national parks, environmental protection, investment climate, taxes, laws, the list is long. And at a time when reasonable and informed discussion appears to be at a premium, schools are among the last civic institutions we have left—communities that bring together people of all backgrounds to learn and interrogate the world. To not be political is to make education irrelevant—to disconnect it from the world for which it exists. If authentic education is about truth, if it isn’t political it risks being bullshit.
Of course, the conservative reader (if there are any!) might be thinking that I am saying this because I agree with Augsburg’s opposition to the Amendment. Full disclosure: I completely and resolutely oppose the amendment, and I agree with Augsburg’s stance. I do this, however, for reasons that actually go much deeper than just the marriage issue.
When one gets a higher education and engages the world, one of the first lessons is that life is adaptable and that human beings have been a successful species because we share, we learn and we change. We trade foods, we convert to different religions, we think smoking is cool and then we learn it is bad for our health. Homo Sapiens have migrated all around the world and we have made a lot of discoveries and made a lot of ignorant mistakes. Culture changes and norms change. Despite the fact that some conservatives have the opinion that around the world the desired definition of marriage has always been between one man and one women, they are wrong. As I mentioned in a post last week on the “conspiracy of opinions”, an opinion is not a fact. The fact, that anthropologists will tell you, is that globally the most desired marriage structure is a polygynous one. One’s personal opinion about this won’t alter reality.
Regardless of their personal beliefs, Minnesota educators should oppose the amendment on the grounds that it is against everything that higher education stands for—it is a cynical attempt to cut off a discussion before it can begin. This is an anti-community, anti-political, nasty and regressive piece of legislation that fears change. It doesn’t want to have an open conversation, but wants to quickly silence the opposition. The process appears to be democratic, but seeks to harm a minority of individuals in our community through the tyranny of the majority. Supporters of this amendment claim a moral position that is incompatible with the actual makeup of our communities. Gay people exisit. They are our friends, our relatives, our co-workers, and our neighbors. The proposed constitutional amendment is not concerned with true debate, true conversation or authentic understanding—it isn’t about listening to what our community is. It is, instead, focused on disabling community dialogue through the strategic deployment of bullshit.
Other than what I have gleaned from the press coverage of President Pribbenow’s decision, I don’t know the details of how he came to his decision. I can say this, however, at this moment he has defined leadership in higher education. He has taken a risk and he has made a courageous statement on behalf of the community he leads. I imagine that given the diversity of folks that work and study in Augsburg’s educational community, there are those that oppose his decision. If they truly have a diverse community of learners this should be expected. But, leadership means making an authentic decision for one’s community when it is most risky. I would hope that even those who disagree with president Pribbenow will respect that he has displayed the personal integrity to lead his community on this issue. Regardless of one’s opinion about the marriage issue, Pribbenow has said no to the politics of spite—the politics that want to deny the very thing that higher education claims it values most.
It is interesting that when universities talk about “best practices,” follow similar marketing plans, and build the same types of buildings they create a marketplace that is roughly the same—claims to distinction are only as deep as the marketing. True distinction, however, comes from not being afraid to publicly assert uniqueness—and speak to the values of the community in which one lives and works. Now is the time for all institutions of higher learning to step out and lead—to clearly state the values of their communities. Do our institutions of higher learning support or oppose the amendment? Universities should lead as they see fit, and make their own decisions for their communities. If civic engagement means anything in the missions of so many colleges and universities, however, then silence on this amendment is the one position that should not be acceptable. Augsburg may have been first to make a clear stand, but there is plenty of time to be followers on this issue.*
Last Friday afternoon my wife and I went to the Minnesota State Fair to enjoy a beautiful day and some fatty and sugary foods on the occasion of our tenth wedding anniversary. One of the last remaining truly public events that are shared by Minnesotans of all walks of life—the fair is really a once-a-year opportunity to see the diversity of people that live in our state “get together” to enjoy some of the last days of summer. Cowboy boots and big belt buckles, heavy metal tee shirts and eye liner, bling and saggy jeans, short shorts and hijabs—nearly everyone who goes will eat something on a stick. If anyone needs proof that Minnesota isn’t a homogenous place, you can see it at the fair.
When we walked past the education building I made a point to seek out the Augsburg College booth—to thank their representative for the public stand that their community took on the marriage amendment issue. Imagine my surprise when I found the university president himself sitting there wearing a baseball cap working a shift in the booth. We had a brief conversation and I thanked him in person. His presence speaks to his commitment.
On the surface, Augsburg College’s “We are called Auggies” advertisements, may appear to feature the same smiling faces and appear to make the same promises as every other undergraduate institution in the state. But they are not. While I am still not sure if I know what exactly an “Auggie” is. Over the past week, I have been getting a much clearer idea.
Auggies are for real.
* Since this was first written Saint Olaf’s faculty have voted to oppose the amendment. Their administration has, however, said it will not take an official position. I discuss this confusing situation in “Would the Authentic University Please Speak Up!”