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What's Your Brand?

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Once upon a time, universities had identities, purposes, goals, mottos, even just functions. Then, in the 1990s, they suddenly developed "missions," in imitation of the corporate fad of the time whereby mission-focused "strategic planning" was all the rage. (I know this firsthand, having sat through endless strategic planning sessions at my university in the 1990s.) Today, strategic planning is regarded as a lumbering dinosaur in need of replacement by nimble-thinking campus president-CEOs who haven't the time to listen to students and faculty about the directions of their campuses. Instead, universities now have brands. I bring this up in a blog devoted to the teaching of popular cultural semiotics to demonstrate once again that the purpose of such classes is not to celebrate our entertainment/consumer culture but to analyze it for signs of the kind of society we have become. And in seeing universities treated by university personnel as products to be branded and sold to "consumers," we can measure just how far we have gone into the hypercapitalistic obliteration of every other perspective on what life and society can be. When universities are brands rather than settings for learning and scholarship, they are not only being told to behave like businesses, they are being told that they are businesses.  This, of course, is very bad news indeed for the humanities, which have never been cash cows, and are now staring down at their own potential extinction. (If you want to see a starkly honest assessment of the future of the humanities as an academic career, I suggest that you look at the site 100 Reason Not to Go to Graduate School). Academic pundits from Stanley Fish to Martha Nussbaum have weighed in on this crisis (Fish has taken the position that the humanities shouldn't even attempt to justify themselves to business-model obsessed administrators, while Nussbaum eloquently makes the traditional case for the extra-economic value of training a citizenry in humanistic values), but they aren't changing anything. Indeed, the crisis is accelerating much like the way the effects of global warming are, as is to be expected when our culture is coming to adopt the positions of corporate-think as if they were the only world views possible. The situation has gotten so bad that I expect that some of my readers are simply shaking their heads at this obsolescent baby boomer who just cant simply get with the program. Well okay, call me old fashioned; I do not regard TED and MOOC as my friends. Like the medieval monks and lay scholars who flocked to Europe's original universities as a haven from the violence and brutalities of the Middle Ages, I entered academia as a haven from the salesmanship and money worship of American society. I think that Death of a Salesman is a far more valuable document than the Forbes 500. The entrepreneur and the CEO are no heroes of mine. For many years, American society made room for people like me, carving out a space for something (the study of literature, philosophy, and art) that never could justify itself in market-based terms. Ironically enough, I can justify the teaching of popular culture in market terms, both because there is a large demand for it among students and because its study (as I tell my classes) can be useful in such areas as advertising, market research, and the culture industries. But my emphasis is on critical thinking, not "Disneygeering." As I also tell my students, I am not personally threatened by this seismic shift in the nature of the modern university. Once upon a time, the American education system made room for people like me, and the career that I began many years ago will almost certainly serve out my time. Though we are moving toward a situation in which most "educators" will be little more than minimum-wage purveyors of digitized learning management systems, I'll be retired by then. It's the next generation that is going to pay the full price here, not mine. And they shall live corporately ever after.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.