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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 05:58 pm

Why does a university need a CMO?

The “ivory tower” of academia has become overshadowed by a new edifice on campus that is reaching ridiculous heights: the tower of mammon.

As public universities have been driven by budget-whacking lawmakers to seek ever-more private funding, schools that once prided themselves as being centers of free thinking are increasingly dominated by corporate-think, turning their institutions into sales centers.

“A lot of schools are taking a much more corporate approach,” exulted a public relations executive who works with top university administrators, marveling that “a CMO didn’t even exist on most campuses 10 years ago.”

A what? A chief marketing officer, whose job is to peddle the place like it’s a new model of car or line of cosmetics. As explained by the CMO of the University of California system, “the changing funding landscape” requires universities to sell themselves to moneyed elites, which means academic institutions must rework what he calls “their visual identities.” In the snappy new parlance of university commercialism, this is “rebranding” – an attempt to modernize the image of venerable institutions by adopting corporate-styled logos, slogans and other marketing fluff.

Forget intellectual pursuits, we’re talking about pursuing buyers, in the brave new academic marketplace. This results in colleges resorting to the same kind of ridiculous come-ons that hawkers of consumer products often barf-up.

Iowa’s Drake University, for example, rebranded itself a couple of years ago with the slogan “Drake-plus.” That was intended to sell students and donors alike on the clever equation that Drake-plus-you would equal remarkable results – even excellence. This could have been just another bit of inane but innocuous PR puffery – except that the school’s marketing geniuses chose to reach for graphic artistry. Rather than going with the boring literalism of “Drake-plus,” they rebranded with a more hip, abstract design, substituting the letter “D” to refer to Drake and punctuating it with the plus sign. Yes, that meant that the official brand they created to characterize their institution of higher learning was: “D-plus.” Not exactly a standard of academic excellence.

Meanwhile, back at the University of California, it’s hyperactive CMO declared the official seal of the system to be fusty, long overdue for a spiffy update. Actually, while the seal was 144 years old, it was rather elegant, and it made a straightforward statement about the institution’s academic purpose. The venerable emblem featured a bright star beaming onto an open book, with a banner proclaiming, “Let there be light.”

But that’s so old school, cried the rebranders, so out of sync with today’s market-oriented world – especially now that universities are multibillion-dollar, conglomeratized enterprises run by highly paid executives whose chief role is to charm money out of wealthy individuals and corporate benefactors. Forget light, “Let there be money” is the new academic aspiration.

Thus, the UC system was rebranded with an abstract, U-shaped logo with the letter “C” subtly burned into the bottom of the U. It looks very much like a logo for a bank – and that’s the point, for it’s meant to impress money people. As explained by the CMO of UC, “The university needed to do a better job and a more proactive job” in expressing “where the university was headed.”

The good news is that the people of the university overwhelmingly prefer light to marketing. More than 50,000 outraged UC students and alumni signed an online petition in November protesting the corporatized logo, forcing officials there to suspend its use.

A school with plenty of good teachers will sell itself. So here’s a marketing concept: Fire the CMO, and hire a couple more teachers.

Jim Hightower is national radio commentator, columnist and author.
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