Christopher Snook: Do words matter? Modern marketing meets the university

Dalhousie University's new branding highlights how muddled and empty our sloganeering has become
A pedestrian walks by the Dalhousie Dentistry Building in Halifax on Friday, May 22, 2015. Darren Pittman/The Canadian Press.

A memorable moment in William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life brings to the reader’s attention the ubiquity of university mission statements reduced to a twitter-friendly minimalism, citing among the banalest examples “Think big. We do.” and “Get in. Stand out.”

From one perspective, these slogans are harmless incorporations of modern commercial branding into the academy. They certainly bear a closer resemblance to corporate logos (such as Nike’s “Just do it!”) than to the long history of other, more potent and perfunctory statements of religious belief, philosophical speculation, or political action. Think, for example, of the world summoned by MLK’s phrase “I have a dream,” or the profound resonances of, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

This obvious aligning of corporate marketing strategies with university “brands” might give the politically minded professor and the idealistic student pause for thought. But when I received news that the largest university in Eastern Canada had recently undertaken a celebrated process of re-branding (which included the remarkable claim that brands, like people, have personalities), I suspected that commercial university mottos may be illuminating in ways that exceed their simple capitulation to my short attention span and tolerance of schlock.

Dalhousie University, which is significant in Eastern Canada both for its size and research capacity, is located in Halifax, a seaside city whose working-class roots and histories of class and racial resilience, as well as conflict, are still in evidence at the edges of a boom in hip, local retail. Ranked the thirteenth overall university in the nation by the annual Maclean’s listings1Canada’s best universities by reputation: Rankings 2022 and the tenth in terms of quality, Dalhousie is an institution with commitments that it proudly proclaims. The commitments are par for the course in modern communities of higher education and include a well-intentioned dedication to equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility.  

And it is here that a new university slogan becomes interesting. 

Dalhousie has announced the slogan as part of its rebranding process that is, on the surface, benign enough: “Where infinite ambition meets global impact.” My first response to its unveiling was that it constituted one more moment of marketing gibberish in a world with no shortage of the same. 

But as I reflected on the new slogan I began to wonder if these were, to paraphrase Wendell Berry, words one might stand by. What if we took them as a true articulation of the university’s mission in the modern world? What if they are not meant to recede immediately into the background noise of contemporary culture but demand some sort of assent on the part of students, staff, and faculty? And if brands have personality, what kind of personalities might boast of infinite ambition seeking global impact? 

If we pause over Dalhousie’s latest motto a surprising and unsettling set of historical associations are conjured, despite the no doubt positive intentions of its framers. 

In the context of an institution ostensibly committed to Indigeneity and the celebration of Black Nova Scotian history, Dalhousie’s new slogan sounds more like a call back to the age of the conquistadors than an ideal motto for a place of inclusive higher learning. What were Cortez and his gang motivated by when they sacked Tenochtitlan if not an infinite ambition seeking global impact? What made the various Ages of Empire, east and west, so powerfully expansive other than an infinite ambition aiming at global consequences? And what is the explicit warning of Mary Shelley’s remarkable novel, Frankenstein, when it challenges both Romantic genius and the Romantic explorer? Surely it exhorts its reader presciently and persuasively to steer away from “infinite ambition” animated by a desire for “global impact.”

The point I hope to make here is that the new slogan of Dalhousie appears to run entirely against the grain of the institution’s supposed moral positions, which are almost entirely local (not global) and which are largely about redressing historical moments in which an overabundance of ambition produced profound hardship for colonized peoples in the Maritimes. Quite apart from whether finite beings can possess an infinite ambition (a question not without some philosophical history), Dalhousie’s new brand emerges at a political and cultural moment when a rediscovery of humility, limits, locality, and self-examination is presupposed by all of Dalhousie’s own political commitments. 

But there is more. 

Arguably, Dalhousie’s new slogan indicates that the humanities have ceased to possess a strong and convincing claim on the institution’s priorities. Even a cursory familiarity with the histories of global literature makes clear there is simply no way, from the perspective of the humanities, to affirm as wise or uncomplicated the phrase, “infinite ambition.” Whether it is the wisdom traditions that ground the university in its medieval origins, or the insights of the ancient Greeks, or the Renaissance plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare, or the more recently recorded sayings of Indigenous elders and the work of decolonization, all agree that unlimited ambition is the source not of human flourishing but of communal and personal destruction. 

Though humans may be called to greatness (as Dalhousie likely hopes this particular slogan suggests), that greatness, as best one can discern from the collective wisdom of the past millennia, is contingent on an appreciation of human frailty, of people’s remarkable capacity for poor judgement and self-deceit, and on habits of self-examination which insist on there being some relationship between the order of our interior lives and the order (or disorder) we impose on the world. 

Slogans like “Dalhousie: Where we discover our limits and think about our neighbours” might not energize whatever community it is that Dalhousie’s rebranding is meant to engage (and just who is meant to be engaged is a deep and perplexing question). But that the new slogan is morally malleable and can be as easily imagined on t-shirts advocating some form of neo-colonialism as on university letterhead ought to give some pause. 

More importantly, that it calls on Dalhousie to look and think globally when there are real ongoing needs in the province, which in part funds the University, and among the very people that the University claims to privilege (faculty are encouraged to include a specific reference to Indigenous and African Nova Scotians on their email signature lines), is at the very least a sign that those who approved the slogan lost sight of the tireless work of faculty, whose research, community involvement, and teaching, are in one way or another rooted in the local conditions of life in the Maritimes.

It may not be fair to chasten Dalhousie for following the practices of most sister institutions. I do not mean to suggest that the marketing strategies of one east coast University are intentionally malicious. Marketers do what they are hired to do. Thoughtful folks do what they can. And Dalhousie is not without remarkable faculty who can soften, re-interpret, or even challenge, the assumptions built into the institutional tagline, “Where infinite ambition meets global impact.”

Nonetheless, Dalhousie’s is a case worth pondering as branding and re-branding become the order of the day at places of higher learning and beyond. Not only should the language of “brands” provoke a response from professors and students for its explicit imposition of a customer-relations model on the pedagogical culture of a university and its universal reduction of students to consumers, but the moral ambiguity of much new branding (like Dalhousie’s) ought to rouse us to a new and deeper exploration of if and how words matter.

Perhaps most importantly, Dalhousie’s new brand might be queried for its failure to observe that an authentic education (if it is worth anything at all) is in fact a formation in the wisdoms that dissuade individuals from the cancerous claim that ambition, rather than attention or curiosity or reflection or humility, is the key gift that learning offers. 

Strangely, Dalhousie’s founding motto, “Ora et Labora” (pray and work), is a not insignificant old saying, though I concede that it may be an impossible modern-day slogan for a modern-day institution. While there may be a cultural expectation that students labour, there is clearly no easy way for a modern secular college to stand by prayer as a constitutive aspect of the educative process. Fair enough.

And yet for all that, the founding motto has at least two things that recommend it. In the first instance, it channels, via a curiously presbyterian mediation, the motto of Benedictine monasticism thus evoking another world governed by rhythms of contemplation, fellowship, and mutual service. These rhythms are not, in the end, all that far from the elusive culture of wellness and collegiality sought with such determination (and financial investment) by contemporary schools. But secondly, that historical motto also suggests that contemplation or reflection rightly precedes action. To read the motto under the aegis of modern pressures, education promises a reflective stance in an activist age. 

All of this may be making a mountain out of a molehill. Surely university slogans are a species of public literature that, like much of the snappy sentence-making of the day, neither deserves nor expects great attention. And yet, if words mean anything at all, and if institutions are to be governed by visions of one sort or another, we might at least ask what Dalhousie means by its rebranding strategy, whether it includes a moral imperative or is wholly amoral, and in what ways it might be remotely recognizable to earlier generations of educators or life-giving to future generations of learners. 

Arguably ambition is part and parcel of success in the world, but the cultivation of ambition is not really the work of a university. The work of a university is recollection, the cultivation of slowness in a world of speed, the suggestion (to be taken up or refused) that people are not fundamentally consumers or even producers, but a peculiar species of thinkers—even lovers—whose most fundamental task may be, in the end, not to amplify their ambitions, but to direct and tame them. 

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