As my esteemed editor pointed out in his blog back on Valentine’s Day, the proposed merger of the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina is already a done deal. At least it seems that way given that the politicians involved are speaking with unusual candor about the whole affair and only seem to be willing to address concerns about the name for the new CofC, the Charleston University George Street Campus.
Students complain that their voices are not being heard in the debate, and that’s not surprising. For many of you in this category, this is simply your first — but probably not your last — life lesson in realpolitik: your legislators don’t care about you. It isn’t because you are college students; after all, they need you from time to time to do registration drives and go to Young Democrat or Young Republican club meetings. They may even want you to intern for them.
The reason they aren’t listening to you is because you aren’t their actual constituency — that would be the business elite. If you were, you’d likely be on board with not only the merger but with whatever name the legislature slaps on the front gates.
If it’s a learning moment for these students, it’s also a not-so-gentle reminder for the faculties of both schools. Last Tuesday night, CofC’s Faculty Senate unanimously passed two resolutions against the proposed merger. Of course, I am certain that the state Legislature will pay almost as much attention to these resolutions as CofC officials do to the murmurings of the college’s Student Government Association. This is how democracy works, after all. You’re given the illusion of choice and a voice, but you have absolutely no real say in what is happening.
Many have asked, “What’s driving this sudden and urgent desire to change?” What they miss is that this hasn’t been sudden at all. For many years, the entire mission of higher education has hinged on a self-perpetuating model of using the class aspirations of lower- and middle-class Americans to convince them to go to college in order to place themselves above those who were either content with a high school education (if that much at all) or were unable to get into a college. These same students are then saddled with near-crippling debts, as the floodgates long ago opened allowing private lenders to offer fantastic loans with usurious interest rates and few options for putting off payment (with non-payment, however necessary or morally correct, being out of the question).
Meanwhile, after college about 40 percent of graduates find themselves working for wages on par with, or even below, that of high school graduates. And these college graduates will take those jobs simply to pay off their student loans. But that’s OK since people will know you went to the newly rebranded Charleston University. Not that CofC isn’t already a brand. It is, and its leaders will gladly show your their new logo.
Sadly, if your school has a “brand,” then you’ve already lost the war to the sort of small-minded, meme- and cliche-driven people who write ad copy for cars and cheap beer and who push lousy stories into the top of Google’s search results. As it turns out, the “one weird trick” to save you time and money on your education is found in the movie Good Will Hunting. It happens when Matt Damon tells the elitist Yale jerk in the bar that he could have gotten the same $100,000, Ivy League education with $1.50 worth of late charges at the public library.
The College of Charleston has been on the brandwagon for years now. In 2009, President George Benson devoted a large portion of his address to the graduating class to the concept of branding. The school also now maintains a “Brand Manual” on their website, reminding members of all departments that the guidelines aren’t there to “inhibit creativity or expression,” but you had better damn well make sure your newsletter has the school’s logo at the proper height of 0.275 inches. After all, how can they attract out-of-state students who pay exorbitant out-of-state tuitions without marketing? And what better place to practice marketing than in higher education, where what is important is where you go, not what you know?
So, my advice to the faculty and students at the soon-to-be-known-as Charleston University is to pay less attention to what your school is called and more attention to what you are learning while you are there. It seems to me as though you’re getting a master class in the art of public relations and brand management and you should take notes. We’re going to be living in a world run by these concepts for a long, long time.