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


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 listingsCanada’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. 

Howard Anglin: Canada and the Constitution: A Constitution out of time


Earlier this year, to mark the 40th anniversary of the patriation of the Canadian Constitution, UBC law professor Brian Bird wrote a four-part seriesThe Charter at Forty: The road to 1982 for The Hub tracing Canada’s constitutional history from Confederation to the present, ending with some thoughts about our constitutional future. It is an erudite and accessible journey through more than a century and a half of legal history, which I recommend to anyone interested in understanding the significance of 1982 as an inflection point in the modern history of Canada. In my own rather more polemical series, I make the case that by 1982 Pierre Trudeau’s constitutional vision, which was grounded in the Enlightenment values of liberal rationalism, was already outdated and that Canada’s new Constitution has thrived not on Trudeau’s intended terms, but as a broadly illiberal exercise of irrational judicial power. Here is part two, with the remaining parts to follow each day this week. You can read part one here.

Trudeau may have thought that by adopting the American idea of rights-based liberal constitutionalism he would usher in a new era of rational politics, but it was a belated attempt to convert Canada to a dying faith. Trudeau’s tenacious political longevity meant that, by 1982, he was a man out of his time—a liberal true-believer in a society fractured by the logical consequences of liberalism’s doctrine of radical autonomy. Yes, there were constitutions modeled along American and Canadian lines after 1982, but they were mostly flawed or superficially formal imitations of the originals. Some were exercises in liberal imperialism, imposed in a spirit of guilty hope on newly liberated colonies; most were constitutional kitsch.

Canada’s own Constitution was enacted at just about the last moment at which it would have been possible to do so here. Politically, the logic of individual autonomy that underlay Trudeau’s liberalismEarlier this year on this site, UBC Law Professor Brian Bird recorded that, in his memoirs, Trudeau described the Charter as “an expression of my long-held view that the subject of law must be the individual human being; the law must permit the individual to fulfill himself or herself to the utmost.” was beginning to reveal its destructive potential as it fractured the social consensus at a much deeper level than even he intended. One obvious consequence of this was Quebec’s rejection of the new Constitution—an act of defiant self-determination that drew on the same liberationist impulse that underlay Trudeau’s Charter, albeit at the national rather than the individual level. Liberalism had no answer to a movement that used its freedom to reject liberalism.

The demand for recognition and autonomy didn’t end with Quebec. Just eight years after the new Constitution was enacted, Elijah Harper refused to grant unanimous consent to the Meech Lake Accord in the Manitoba legislature. His stand showed that Indigenous Canadians were no longer content to be passive observers of other peoples’ acts of constitutional self-creation. Just two years later, the Charlottetown Accord was rejected by a majority of the provinces and territories as the country divided over the question of whether Quebec’s distinct status should be constitutionally recognized as an atavistic anomaly within the new liberal order.

By 1991, the consensus that had been strong enough in 1982 to allow Trudeau and the premiers to impose the new Constitution as a top-down fait accompli was shattered. It is likely that, even in 1982, if the people of Canada had been asked for their opinion on each article of the proposed Constitution, the process would have disintegrated in the same way it did in the Meech Lake and Charlottetown debacles. But back then, governments could just about get away with not asking the people. Less than a decade later, as Peter C. Newman wrote, it was clear to most Canadians “that 11 men in suits meeting behind closed doors should never again determine the country’s future.”

To understand how revolutionary Trudeau’s Constitution was, you have to start with the Constitution it replaced.British North America Act, 1867 – Enactment no. 1 Although the British North America Act of 1867 exhibited what constitutional theorist Martin Loughlin calls “the incipient Rationalism of writtenness,” its written terms mostly specified the division of powers in a confederal state and the peculiar requirements of accommodating previously separate colonies. When it came to the operation of government, however, it followed the unwritten practices, customs, and conventions of Victorian parliamentary democracy, which meant parliamentary supremacy—or at least as close an approximation of such power as an Imperial statute could permit. It even specified that Canada would have “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom,” which meant an implicit, organic, often unstated, and stubbornly anti-Rational Constitution.

Our pre-1982 Constitution was not based on the liberal theory of authority delegated by the people but rather, as Leo Amery observed of the British Constitution in the 1940s, on “democracy by consent and not by delegation, of government of the people, for the people, with, but not by, the people.”My emphasis. Trudeau’s reforms went right for that pre-Enlightenment heart, injecting the adrenaline of the American and French revolutions into our sleepy constitutional compromise. For the first time in a Westminster parliamentary system, a layer of universal rights was elevated in an unspecified and abstract form—with the details to be worked out later—above the sovereignty of parliament. How alien was the new Constitution? Consider that it introduced the principle of judicial supremacy into a Constitution that didn’t (and still doesn’t) strictly require there to be a Supreme Court of Canada.

The idea of subordinating local custom, tradition, public morality, and practical knowledge to the “Rights of Man” was the apotheosis of the Enlightenment project. As Yuval Levin described it in his book contrasting the philosophies of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, the Rationalists insisted that “[e]very political practice, institution and allegiance must explain itself in philosophical terms, so that no long-standing tradition, institution or cherished habit can resist the searing light so speculative analysis.”The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left In theory, the Charter summed up the utopian idealism of the liberal imagination and nothing as prosaic as the wisdom of the ages would be allowed to stand in its way. In practice, it threw the form of the Constitution up for grabs, and it was the judges who grabbed it.

In the hands of courts with almost total power to circumscribe the power of the other branches of government, the liberalism that Trudeau believed should order society quickly slipped its chain. Canada’s courts began applying the relentless logic of liberal rationalism to every belief system except, of course, liberalism itself. In case after case, the courts applied it to reject, as Levin wrote of the liberal project in general, “all that cannot explain itself in terms of modern reason” and to retain “only those elements of political life that meet its standards—regardless of what society may actually need or that had proven capable of serving the community in years gone by.”

The Supreme Court of Canada constitutionally entrenched this legal philosophy in the 1986 case of R. v. Oakes, when it announced that every act of parliament must now be rationally justified as “proportional” to the satisfaction of the courts. Under the Oakes test, an act of parliament must be directed at a necessary and important goal and “proportionate” in the rational means by which it would achieve that goal—with the courts sitting as the arbiters of what political ends are necessary and which political means are rational for the government of Canadian society.

It is a test that might have been dreamt up by Paine himself. And like Paine’s philosophy of deracinated capital-R Reason, once unleashed, it could not be contained. Henceforth, the Constitution would no longer take its meaning from settled expectations, social convention, and moral intuition as expressed democratically through parliamentary deliberation but from the creative reasoning of the courts, subject only to the apparently inexhaustible limits of their creativity.

In 1968, the witty old leftist theorist of the British constitution, JAG Griffith, summed up a similar tendency in the (much more modest and restrained) jurisprudence of his country. The judges, he wrote, “say and believe that distinctions can be made between matters apt for the courts, and matters apt for Parliament. They render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to themselves the things that are God’s.” After 1982, Canada’s Supreme Court may not quite have claimed absolute divine authority but, taking the adjective “supreme” rather too literally, they confidently assumed absolute temporal power.