By Harvey Silverglate
For quite some time, I’ve been griping about what I call “the corporatization of the American university” – the trend in which our colleges and universities have prioritized their role as businesses over their role as educational institutions. This transition has led to all manner and kind of mischief, including an administrative culture that is willing to sacrifice such basic values as academic freedom and rational processes in order that there be “no trouble on the watch” of the current president, whoever he or she might be. (I discuss this at length in my 1998 book The Shadow University.) Because promotional messages must be tightly controlled – as they are for major corporations -- the public face of most universities today is that of the “vice-president for community relations and public relations,” rather than the president or other academic leader.
It often seems that Harvard University is the punching bag for my doleful thesis about the degradation of the academy. And so it goes: In its December 13 edition, The Cambridge Chronicle, the weekly newspaper of what we Cantabridgians fondly refer to as The People’s Republik of Cambridge, reports that “The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University plans to rebrand itself the ‘Harvard Kennedy School.’” And why, after all these years, make such a move? Well, according to the Chronicle, to “better leverage the Harvard name.”
The spokesperson who explained the change, and the reasons for it, to the Chronicle was – of course – Melodie Jackson, the associate dean for communications and public affairs for the Kennedy School. David Ellwood, the Kennedy School dean, broke the news in an email to alumni, explaining: “It’s really an effort to be more effective in our communications to our audiences and to our various stakeholders,” he wrote. Stakeholders? Hmm. The decision was made, naturally, in conjunction with market research and focus group work. It turns out that there’s some kind of advantage, for branding purposes, in having the Kennedy School equate to Harvard’s other premier graduate professional schools, namely Harvard Medical School and Harvard Law School. But this raises a logical question: if the HLS teaches law, and the HMS teaches medicine, what does the Harvard Kennedy School teach? At least the old John F. Kennedy School of Government said something honest about the curriculum.
My advice to stakeholders: stay turned for future good news from the associate dean for communications and public affairs.