'Cal: There's an App for That!'

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There are other topics to catch up on, but by serendipity three similar-themed responses on the UCal Logo Wars arrived at practically the same moment.


One by one, and even more powerfully in combination. they make the excellent point that this is not just about a logo and whether you prefer the "classic stateliness" of the old look or the "bold simplicity" of the new. These writers argue that this seemingly silly controversy in fact raises timely and surprisingly sweeping questions about the future identity, role, and financial underpinnings of great universities. I turn it over to the readers:

Embracing the new. One reader in North Carolina says that the people in charge at UC are merely trying to get ahead of technological and market reality:
What this logo made me think, immediately, is that U Cal is prepping for (or leaping into) a future where more of its students relate to it as a web site than a physical place.

I think this is indicative of where higher ed is going.  It doesn't surprise me that people whose memories of the university are based on all-nighters in the dorm, hanging out in the student union or tailgating at football game would find this unrepresentative of their feelings about their college experience.  I bet someone who is 12 year old right now will find this design (when they are investigating colleges 5 years from now) spot on.
But wait a minute. A friend in the Bay Area whose BA, MA, and PhD are all from UC Berkeley sees similar implications in the new logo but doesn't like them. Emphasis added in his note and the following one:
[Re] the execrable new logo from my alma mater. I wanted to add something which I haven't seen articulated elsewhere, regarding what I see as the ideological implications of the logo -- or perhaps better, the mission vision that the logo speaks to. 

(I should add that I have no knowledge whatsoever about the conversations that went into the logo, or even about who was involved in the process. So this is pure speculation.)

My first thought when I saw the new logo was "UC: there's an app for that!" Which seemed like a joke, until I realized that there might be a subtle truth behind it. What I'd like to suggest is that the logo's dot-commish quality is no bug, but rather a very intentional feature.

Some context: Arguably biggest story among the technorati this fall has been the explosive rise of massively open online courses (MOOCs). The hype began when over 160,000 people worldwide took Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun's introductory Artificial Intelligence course in the Fall of 2011. The stunning popularity of the course spurred Thrun to start the company Udacity, which is working with a number of different elite universities to help them put their courses online so that they can be taken by people anywhere in the world. Since then, several other similar venture have started, notably Coursera and edX, each of which is looking to make star professors' courses at elite universities available to anyone.

There's been a vigorous debate going on concerning the implications for higher education of the MOOC phenomenon. While the entrepreneurs behind the MOOC companies have been telling a noble story about the democratization of higher education, people like Clay Shirky have been claiming it represents the first step in the "Napsterization" of higher ed. Clay's basic idea is that once MOOCs figure out a way to accredit the students who take their courses, they may rapidly displace the traditional four year college education -- the price tag for which can now run to quarter of a million dollars. All of this is taking place in the shadow of the "don't go to college, just be an entrepreneur" noise that has also been coming out of Silicon Valley over the last three years, spearheaded by venture capitalist Peter Theil, who has been telling kids to stake their single chance to go to college for the opportunity to enter the entrepreneurial game at eighteen.

Until recently, Berkeley had not been opening itself up to the MOOC phenomenon, but in July they announced they were signing on with edX. This takes place in the wake of what has been a very tough few years for Berkeley, as the state of California's budget woes have dramatically cut into taxpayer funding of public higher education. Tuition rates have risen dramatically, leading to lamentations that the famed multiversity -- with its mission to provide the highest quality education to talented youth regardless of background and thus prime the pump for the California economy -- was coming apart at the seams. Some have claimed that the University faced a choice between abandoning its mission to serve the California economy by providing the highest quality education, and its role as an engine of social mobility by providing access at a price anyone in the state could afford. That was always a false dichotomy, but insofar as it was a choice, the University has been pretty decisive: raising prices in order to preserve funding and thus quality, even if this has undermined the accessibility of the institution to the state's poor.

This is the context in which we need to see the new logo -- when Berkeley's logo declares "Cal: there's an app for that," it's a way to square the circle between maintaining the quality and reputation of the institution, and maintaining the democratic access to the institution. Berkeley's logo symbolizes the view that education, at least in its mass form, can be treated as an "app." 

If the dichotomy between quality and access was always a bit false, however, then this solution is equally disingenuous. Because the silliest thing about the MOOC phenomenon is the notion that it is a substitute for an elite education. Yes, MOOCs pose a mortal threat to lousy colleges: once the accreditation element of MOOCs gets solved, one will be able to make an excellent case that you can learn more from taking the online computer science course from the smartest profs in the world at Berkeley or Stanford, as opposed to taking the same classes from the dead wood at Whatsamatta U. 

At the same time, the MOOCs in my view present little threat to elite college education, because such an education is about so much more than just what one learns in class: elite social networks, signaling value to employers, intense intellectual engagement outside of class, participation in school clubs which are career launchpads (Hasty Pudding, Crimson, etc.), to say nothing of a great deal of coming-of-age fun. Whether those latter features can support the current price tag that most universities charge is another question -- anywhere outside the top 50 (or maybe top 20) universities, the answer is probably no. But for elite universities, MOOCs represent a way to increase their market share at the expense of the lower tier institutions. Indeed, depending on how the pricing and cost structures shake out, it may be the MOOC students (who will get a relatively low-value degree) end up sponsoring the on-campus students (who will continue to get an elite degree, not to mention a lot more fun).

Speaking personally, I'm not sure that's the mission that Berkeley should be engaged in. 

Go Wolverine U! Another reader in the Bay Area writes:
It's time to revive the idea I sent you a few months back during the Penn State scandals:

College and university image problems would immediately be solved if these "educational" institutions simply renamed themselves after the one brand identity their entire community already loves the most:  the name of their sports teams. 

GoldenBear.jpg
Thus UC Berkeley (in the city where I live) could simply become Golden Bear University.  One inspiring version of the requisite ursine logo prominently portraying vivid claws already adorns many sweatshirts around town, so no major new design effort would be required.  Result: an instant image upgrade with no iconic connection to the failing statewide system.

This would have the great benefit of ending the common pretense that it's the academics that matter most on campus, when that's true only for the minority of students who actually show up to be educated.  In fact, this cohort and their alumni fellow-travelers actually function most effectively as support for the football and basketball teams and other mass-entertainment athletic efforts, helping to garner income and free publicity from widespread TV exposure.

Once implemented at Berkeley -- ever the trend-setter -- a wave of change could swiftly spread to the rest of the UC system, soon creating Trojan University instead of boring old UCLA, etc. [JF note: Ahem, I think we mean Bruin University, as opposed to Trojan University nee USC. But still] , and culminating perhaps with the best UC rebranding of all: Anteater University instead of UC Irvine.  

Elsewhere, what schools could resist the popular demands to rename in order to align their image with their actual priorities?  Who wouldn't rather attend Wolverine University than the U of Wisconsin [JF: Or 'U of Michigan,' but we take the point], say, or Nittany Lions U instead of Penn State?  Admittedly schools with more abstract team names would have some difficulty -- Crimson University doesn't really improve on Harvard -- but clever marketing departments everywhere would be inspired to take up the challenge.

I think that's it for a while.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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