Branding Is Not An Academic Priority

Again: university branding is not an academic priority. And to the extent that the improvement or broadcasting of a university’s reputation is pursued as a matter of promoting a brand rather than reflecting or substantive academic achievements, university reputation — including institutional rankings — is not an academic priority either. This is not to say universities have no need to promote themselves, or to complete for students, faculty, and support. Plainly, they do. Nor can they do so without any reference to the academic work their faculty and students pursue, though how closely PR reflects achievements is an open question; branding is often more about the linking the university’s name to certain buzzwords than to publicizing substantive work. Regardless, and this is the key, building a brand is not what teaching and research are for.

This should be obvious to anyone involved in higher education, but it’s not. To the contrary, a wilfully ignorant and extraordinarily pernicious conflation of academic priorities and institutional PR is now virtually de rigueur in strategic planning. And as strategic plans reshape the allocation of resources on campus, procedures of faculty and program assessment, and even the economy of respect and authority between faculty, administrators, and students sometimes known as institutional culture, this confusion of substance and sloganeering begins to pervert the work and relationships that constitute universities as academic institutions and that alone can justify whatever public regard, support, and protection they claim.

A couple of posts ago I noted that my own institution’s strategic plan, which is explicitly centred on building “our” brand, calls for the creation of a new interdisciplinary graduate program every year. I’m not (at all) against interdisciplinarity. But I think the fact that this injunction can be given from above without any reference to what these programs will be, let alone any academic rationale for offering them, is cause for alarm. A degree-granting program, interdisciplinary or otherwise, represents not only a serious investment of resources — and, in conditions of austerity, a corresponding disinvestment in other activities — but also a commitment by faculty to some genuine body of knowledge, mastery of which the degree represents. Announcing a new one every year for the foreseeable future without any thought to what their substance will be is not an academic strategy; it’s a marketing ploy. Worse, it turns real teaching and research — not only those to be committed to these Potemkin programs, but also those bearing the brunt of the resulting cuts — into instruments of an administrative PR agenda.

Indeed, the stress on “interdisciplinarity” which runs through so many strategic plans highlights the extent to which genuine academic enterprises lend themselves to this appropriation. Administrative cynicism turns the interdisciplinary label (and others) into a palatable justification for starving the disciplines on which actual interdisciplinary scholarship depends. What should emerge organically from scholarship and community is made by fiat a criterion of institutional support. When specialists from disparate areas use each others’ ideas or tools to see their own research in a new way; when they come together to look at a subject from multiple perspectives or present it in a new medium; when they pool their expertise to produce teaching or scholarship that none individually could — that’s valuable work. But when administrators require faculty members and departments to justify their every request (whether for internal grants or faculty hires) in terms of “interdisciplinarity” in the abstract, the word becomes a shibboleth. It asks existing disciplinary programs — and discipline-based faculty — to justify themselves as contributors to the very initiatives that sideline them. And it gives arbitrary and non-academic decisions about resource allocation an unearned academic gloss.

Such appropriations further divide the faculty into approved up-and-comers, naturally glad of the regard their work garners from above, and others whose best efforts simply don’t matter because their off-brand disciplines no longer fall on administrators’ visible spectrum. In many respects this is of a piece with the more blatant and yet more insidious reduction of research to external grant money and bibliometrics (specifically, numbers of publications and numbers of citations). Here, too, PR and the pursuit of scholarship operate at cross purposes. But here — whether because of the complexly competitive nature of the profession, or because the metrics involved often pertain directly to individual scholars and their work — the conflict can be harder to see, especially for those academics whom the numbers flatter, and who may be more apt to internalize the conflation of rank and worth the metrics imply. Who isn’t happy to think that they’ve published more, or been cited more often, than their colleagues? Who wouldn’t enjoy being praised for winning a larger grant than anyone else? No one who’s been through graduate school and come out the other side. Academic vanity is a reliable wedge.

The upshot is that more and more of our putatively scholarly efforts are bent towards matching an administrative vision of what is good for the university brand. That’s what wins recognition and support; that’s what gets a program the power to hire more faculty and keep itself afloat. Faculty members — even those who benefit in the short term — may come to regret their acquiescence in this process. We know that numbers of articles and citations are not measures of scholarly merit. We know that interdisciplinary collaboration does not happen on a fixed schedule, and that it is predicated on the existence of the disciplines on which it draws. We know that graduate programs take time to be created and more time still to prove themselves. Yet enough of us are willing to pretend otherwise that denying what is obvious to us as teachers and researchers is now a criterion for professional advancement at our universities.

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