My University “Rebranded.” Instead, It Should’ve Actually Confronted Injustice.

For more than 10 years, I have been a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston). This is a community I have been seeking to join since the mid-1990s. I really wanted to be a part of the faculty at Boston’s only public research university, a place whose “urban mission” embodied exactly the kind of rigorous, social justice-oriented work I wanted to do. I have been an active member of my union and our Faculty Council, and (I think) fairly clear-eyed when it comes to understanding the very different roles played on campus by faculty and administration.

But still, I was taken by surprise by an email from our chancellor on April 25, announcing the fruits of a major $1.5 million “rebranding effort.” It was a new logo… and slogan too: “For the times.” We were instructed that “UMass Boston’s enhanced visual identity will include a new brand mark that highlights the university’s connection to Boston and its mission and service as a beacon in urban higher education. The new visual identity will be highlighted in multiple marketing platforms, including billboards, broadcast, social and print media.”

As the former communications director for (and now vice president of) the Faculty Staff Union (FSU), I pored over the marketing materials that were released in a late April flurry and want to start with one unqualified bit of praise: I unequivocally love how our students are centered in the promotional video and other adjacent visual materials. And I certainly understand that these marketing materials are not aimed at, nor are they intended to capture the priorities of the faculty and librarians who constitute my union.

But let’s think through some of the wider implications of my university’s “rebranding” actions. The university — Boston’s only public research university — properly boasts of being the “diversity flagship” of the UMass system but is chronically underfunded: What can we make of UMass Boston spending this kind of money on a seemingly superficial marketing campaign?

UMass Boston and its surrounding communities have been engaged in a number of important conversations in recent years — about racial justice, health equity, the university as a site of (and engine for) potentially “good” jobs, and the ways that the university, built on the site of a former city dump, must consider the role in plays in shaping the economic and cultural geography of Boston. The expensive rebranding effort has raised a number of concerns.

The first concern — which is admittedly hard to get a bead on because of the lack of administrative transparency — is the bottom line. We have heard that the campaign cost $1.5 million, but that the money was “repurposed” — and hence budget-neutral. This “budget neutrality” might seem like good news for a campus whose staff unions have suffered terrible cuts in its workforce as a response to the putative demands of longstanding debt.

However, let’s be clear. If this kind of money can be repurposed for a marketing campaign, then just imagine how much could be repurposed to pay our graduate workers a livable wage. Under the last contract, fully funded graduate workers make $18,000 a year — in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the country. We will need to push for fuller accounting, that’s for sure — not only of the marketing campaign, but of various other recent outlays as well. I will be especially interested to find out what the administration paid to the Boston law firm that has been hired to “audit” our Africana Studies department at the request of, well… no faculty whatsoever, and after administration decisions have gutted the department. As Boston’s Black newspaper, the Bay State Banner has recently reported, the department, which a few years ago had seven full-time faculty members, now has a grand total of 1.5 (one full-time member and one colleague whose time is split with another department).

In the past two years, prompted especially by the police murder of George Floyd in 2020 and subsequent uprisings, UMass Boston has committed to transforming itself into an anti-racist and health promoting university — including many meaningful campus programming activities. But, as FSU President Steve Striffler and I wrote in the summer of 2020, “addressing racism and inequality within higher education must encompass the question of who wields power and purse strings over state-supported higher education more broadly. Racist in practice, if not always intent, the attack on public higher education disproportionately impacts people of color — the majority of UMass Boston students — who find themselves either crippled with student-loan debt or unable to afford college altogether.”

Nowhere does the statewide disinvestment in our core mission come into starker relief than with the administration’s austerity approach to our crucial “Centers” and “Institutes.” As the Bay State Banner explained in 2019, the four institutes organized to study and engage with Black, Asian American, Native American and Latinx communities have been particularly hard-hit by budget cuts. The so-called “glide path to self-sufficiency” represents a direct attack on the urban mission of the university.

These financial attacks on the engines of our core mission at UMass Boston are now joined with the fact that most campus employees will be receiving “raises” over the next few years that are actually pay cuts in real dollars, due to inflation.

More generally, I worry that the university’s focus on rebranding is a distraction from important matters. As a historian with particular interest in cultural geography, I have found this $1.5 million “for the times” branding effort troubling — especially since my colleague Joseph Ramsey first suggested to me that the deployment of “time” as the focal dimension of UMass Boston’s new rebranding at least implicitly demoted the importance of our actual, physical Dorchester-based “place.”

The vagueness of “for the times,” anodyne as it first seems, strikes me as a hand-in-glove partner to that phrase we work so hard to get students not to use: “back in the day.” Here the imprecision strikes me as purposeful — Eli Meyerhoff explains, in Beyond Education, that academic versions of crisis capitalism often present “time” as “abstracted from space.” And I would be remiss if I failed to mention that “for the times” is not just the slogan at the heart of our marketing campaign — it is also the title of the draft version of our new strategic plan that the provost’s office recently issued.

While the promotional video accompanying the new branding regime includes a quick image or two of Boston harbor, and some classrooms and labs, the dominant visual images come from our one dormitory, which could be anywhere. There is literally no hint that our university remains largely a commuter school and that we are in Dorchester, a neighborhood with more foreign-born residents than any other in the city. The median income of the neighborhood is very much on the lower end of the city’s wide range. The pushback from students has already come in MG Xiong’s brilliant undergraduate commencement speech, in which they argued that “it is often hard to be for the times when the times are not for us.” Xiong goes on to suggest that in “our untimely existence … where there is no hope or vision of the future, it is incumbent upon us to invent it. To invent the times. Not for the times … but for us.”

The rebranding sleight-of-hand carried out by our administration strikes me as particularly chilling when UMass Boston is the engine behind a major reshaping of Dorchester’s landscape that has many community members, activists, and UMass Boston faculty, staff and students very worried. The condensed version is that the university owns a very prime piece of real estate on Columbia Point in Dorchester that, per a 2019 agreement, it plans to lease to Accordia Partners, a real estate development and finance company formed in 2014, for the next 99 years. The land is part of a larger parcel with a truly fraught racialized history. (It would be worth reading my union colleague Tim Sieber’s blog postOwning Our Past” which chronicles the “turbulent history of UMass Boston and Columbia Point” with an especially good eye for the “conflictual racial politics” of the area.)

For decades, Columbia Point was the city’s garbage dump — and it is not even a little bit of a stretch to say that a legacy of waste and toxicity continued to infuse the peninsula even after activists got the actual garbage sites closed in the early 1960s. From the promise of post-World War II economic security augured by the building of New England’s largest public housing project on the Point, to the malign racialized neglect of the 1970s and 1980s, all of us at UMass Boston are stitched into a very troubling history. Sieber, Maureen Boyle and Bianca Ortiz-Wythe have recently written a smart and impassioned piece in the local Dorchester Reporter on the dangers the Bayside development poses to the ecosystem UMass Boston is situated in:

We speak out both as Dorchester residents and university-affiliated people. We worry about this mega-project’s neighborhood impacts, and upward pressure on rents, gentrification, and the displacement of current residents we can expect it to bring. Small, high-priced apartments — almost 2,000 planned, less than 1 of 6 only moderately “affordable” — won’t accommodate our multi-generational, mixed-income families. We don’t need another Seaport or Kendall Square in our beautiful, diverse, vibrant neighborhood, and we don’t condone our UMB administration’s washing its hands over the harm this project will cause as currently envisioned.

A coalition that includes all the campus unions and the Faculty Council has gone on record in opposition to these threatening changes to the place where we work and where many of us live. Our provost claims he is “proud to be at UMass Boston because we are so embedded in the fabrics of the very communities where we are located and that we have responsibilities to serve,” yet there is little in the upper administration’s bullish development rhetoric to suggest that the concerns of the community are being taken fully into account.

Instead, we get the placeless abstraction: “For the times.” And maybe some letterhead and business cards (and the very visible banners all over campus) with the new logo.

But we must insist on our emplacement. We do our work not in some unmoored “times” but in the thrilling and messy realities of an actual place. Our status as the “diversity flagship” of the UMass system (with almost 60 percent first-generation students) is inextricably tied to our situatedness. Effacing this reality threatens the urban mission that is foundational to the entire project of our university. A slogan is just a slogan, but as dedicated teachers, librarians, scholars and citizens, we will have to insist that we are here not only for the amorphous “times,” but also for the very actual place!

These budget decisions surrounding logos and the rest at UMass Boston cannot help but resonate uncomfortably with what Larry Hanley and Vida Samiian have recently written about in Truthout as one of neoliberalism’s basic principles: “austerity for most, prosperity for a few.” Some of our colleagues at Kingsborough Community College (part of the CUNY system) have created a brilliant slide show about their “brand ambassador” Wavy the Bear that does a particularly good job of underscoring how such marketing campaigns can quite purposefully distract from more pressing campus concerns. More generally, I worry that the rebranding effort is a distraction from important matters and will serve mostly to establish my campus as a beacon of missed opportunities and bait-and-switch austerity politics.

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