The Campus Culture Industry

PrimantiBros_SkylarYuenI’m sure I’m not the only Lingua Franca reader who received a communication just before the start of the spring term thanking the committee who had worked hard over break on the institutional goal of Strengthening Campus Culture. Those of us whose campus cultures were weak will see them shored up; those whose campus cultures were already strong will see them buttressed for the future.

Only I’m not certain what a campus culture is, exactly. I know: It’s marketing-speak. But we’re talking about it in committees and in white papers, so I want to play dumb for a moment and ask what it is we’re talking about.

Once upon a time, there was school spirit. It had to do mostly with athletics, but also with a tribal affiliation—wearing school colors and logos, associating individual or team achievements with school achievement for purposes of celebration. Misfits like me generally lacked school spirit, but there were limits on how guilty we could be made to feel.

Campus culture seems to share many aspects of school spirit. The American Democracy Project calls it “a powerful source of socialization,” and defines a strong campus culture as conveying “a vibrant sense of mission and a distinctive culture that supports students’ civic understanding and engagement.” That latter turn, toward civic engagement, suggests that campus culture parts ways with school spirit in its emphasis on diversity. Nerds like me—or minorities of any kind—don’t opt out of a strong campus culture the way we opted out of school spirit, because by its very definition, the culture includes us. As the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin puts it, “DDCE cultivates an inclusive campus culture that actively and intentionally engages diverse people, ideas, and perspectives to create a vibrant learning and working environment.”

But hold on, vibrant people. Campus culture is getting a little ragged around the edges, at least in media coverage. Under the headline Vanderbilt gang-rape defense points to campus culture, we read, “Defense attorneys for the former Vanderbilt University football players whose own cellphones show they participated in a dorm-room sex assault have placed blame on the elite Southern university, saying their clients’ judgment was warped by a campus culture where drunken sex was common.” That’s not necessarily a weak campus culture; it may be plenty strong. What it isn’t is diverse, inclusive, engaged, or focused on academics.

Ah. Academics. Now, there’s a buzz-kill word for you. But in fact, when our administrators speak of cultivating a strong campus culture, they are not talking about winning awards for being the greatest party school on the East or West Coast or somewhere in the middle. They are talking about diversity, yes, but they are generally coupling a belief in healthier attitudes toward heterogeneity on campus with a belief in more intellectual engagement. Campaigns for strong campus cultures generally recommend more professorial presence at evening events, more student-faculty collaboration, more spaces and opportunities for student-centered panels, symposia, and so on outside the classroom. This is all good, though beleaguered and underpaid adjunct instructors may find themselves lacking a bit of, um, school spirit for such occasions. Binghamton University may be recognizing the strain that exists, beneath the surface, between what we’re calling campus culture and the less jazzy focus on academics in its website appeal: “Our academic culture resembles a first-rate private university—rigorous, collaborative and boldly innovative—while our campus culture exemplifies the best kind of public university experience: richly diverse students, active social life and deep engagement with the community.”

Leon Wieseltier, meanwhile, in his elegy for humanism, recently wrote, “The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry.” That other strange use of the word culture, coupled as it is with industry, makes me wonder if we are not embarked on a specific sort of marketing endeavor, which we might call the campus culture industry. We have Offices of Campus Culture, Funds for Enhancing Campus Culture, Visioning Processes for Campus Culture, Campus Culture surveys, and Campus Culture Operation Studies. These are not run by thugs. These are run by intelligent, open-minded academics and administrators who want to see our institutions adapt in rapidly changing times. They are often advised, however, by marketing firms whose goals may be different.

So let’s stay on our toes. Stay alert to those capital Cs, their large glib curls swallowing all our tensions. As a sales tool, Campus Culture is a very effective turn of phrase. Let’s just take a moment to assess what it is we’re buying, or working to create.



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