The Bard is rolling in his grave—with laughter, we hope, but a sad, ironic sort of laughter. Project Rose, the effort by for-profit colleges to rebrand their institutions by changing “call center” to “enrollment-assistance center” and “write some business” to “accept applications” turns Shakespeare’s aphorism on its head. The intrinsic nature of a thing, he was suggesting in Romeo & Juliet, is unchanged by its label. For-profit colleges are betting that their target constituency is more like the Capulets and Montagues—regardless of your moral fiber, if you’ve got the right name and speak the right language, they’ll accept you as a member of the clan.
Or—worse—the Project Rose people may be assuming that clan membership comprises nothing more than the right terms. Claim that you’re a rose often enough and poof! You’re a rose. Long ago, I edited a weekly newsletter for the College of Education at a major university, and as part of my duties I sat in on the deans’ meetings. An embarrassing portion of the discussion was given over to the naming of classes in order to make, say, “Human Resource Administration” sound sexier. (How about “Desperately Seeking Secretaries”? Or “Whoops! I Hired Again”?)
Even as the for-profit-college industry seeks to ingratiate itself with seekers of knowledge (known formerly as “starts” by the “parent company,” now called “new students” by the “university system”), the nonprofit college world (should we call it an industry, too?) is moving to ingratiate itself with those who abhor the notion of education for education’s sake. Take assessment, for starters. Duke University’s Office of Assessment refers to “undergraduate educational analysis,” “academic learning compacts,” rubrics of all sorts, and the “Thunderbird Global Mindset Inventory.” These may all be splendid tools for examining the outcomes of liberal-arts education, but the tone and rhythm of the language itself seem ripped right out of a corporate annual report.
Another rebranding that’s become popular is the shift from “college” to “university,” enacted over the past couple of decades even at institutions with fewer than a thousand students. Strictly speaking, these institutions claim the “university” label because they have a few small graduate programs. In actuality, as I know from sitting in on one discussion of such a label change, the impression that’s being floated is that of a more “urban” and “practical-minded” campus, regardless of its actual location or intellectual emphases.
Even liberal-arts college Web sites find ways to incorporate phrases like “real-world challenges,” “career preparation,” “relevant training,” and above all, “globalization.” I am not quarreling with the value of any of these offerings. But just as the rebranding of private-sector institutions cannot change their essential nature as career training in the best instances and scams in the worst, so whipping up references to “real-world engagement” does not change the emphasis in the liberal arts on the life of the mind.
Instead, the consequence, both with Project Rose and with the new-fangled lexicon of assessment and liberal-arts admissions, tends to be confusion, chiefly on the part of the prospective student (or the “start,” or the “client”). Confusion may be the name of the game at the for-profit colleges, but the rest of us can find ourselves uncomfortably backpedaling. A second consequence may be an internal uncertainty about identity. Do the newly dubbed “professors” at a for-profit institution find their calling, like the Cowardly Lion, in the awarding of a medal? And do Chaucerian scholars start developing “mind-set inventories” once they’re made part of assessment? Or do we instead find ourselves in the predicament of a different Shakespearean figure, poor confused Bottom, crying,
Methought I was—there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,—and
methought I had,—but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had.
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