Phi Beta Cons

Sloganeering at the University

Harvey Graff, a professor of English at the Ohio State University, would like some “truth in advertising” in higher education. In a think piece for the Wall Street Journal, Graff wrote that he has endured a succession of meaningless hyperbolic phrases in the form of his school’s mission statements (which are a hallmark of American culture). “Do Something Big” was upgraded to “Do Something Great” and finally became ”Vision 2020″—a term in synch with the mission of current OSU president Michael Drake, an ophthalmologist. (Graff’s article can also be found here.) 

It seems the more ambitious and saccharine the slogan du jour, the worse the conditions that lie underneath. To Graff, this rhetoric-versus-reality exacerbates the problems he identifies, such as in-state tuition subsidies (called “affordability grants” on the university web site), which reduce total revenue and, therefore, faculty pay. And it covers up other complaints: privatizing the school’s non-public assets, cutting costs for toilet paper and document copies, and the big one—that administrative salaries continue to rise as faculty pay stagnates.

Graff is likely correct; conditions are difficult for all large schools—and marketing slogans embraced by universities rarely connote truth. However, he blithely fell for the most egregious example of them all, one that goes back to the founding in 1870: naming the school The Ohio State University, a blatant self-promoting slogan that inculcates meaningless hype in the very name of OSU. While other obviously high self-esteem schools such as Johns Hopkins did it too (but no longer), calling yourself The translates to snobbishness, not a credible goal or mission.

Graff did not mention the slogan content used by hundreds of colleges and universities: diversity, the mission to dilute admission standards to achieve what appears to be the nation’s number one goal. The irony of proclaiming they are The Ohio State University intimates that its administrators are trying to attract the best candidates. Promoting and emphasizing how diverse they are—and the goal of attaining even more diverse students—is the truth below the slogans.

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