Response to Bonnie Urciuoli, “Strategically deployable shifters in college marketing, or just what do they mean by “skills” and “leadership” and “multiculturalism”


Ted O’Neill

University of Chicago


I write from a coffee shop in Amherst, Massachusetts as my daughter revisits a college to which she has been admitted.  Next, we move on to a university down the road for another day and night of visits and speeches and class-visits and parties.  Poised between those visits, I am also poised between two such programs at my own university, where I am the Dean of Admissions.  I am on the lookout for lurking diexis.


As I think about my daughter’s future, and about the ways the University of Chicago presents itself – sells itself, I concede – I am also thinking about the class I will teach when I return to campus, and make note of these words that Tolstoy gives Prince Andrew – innocently? – in the beginning of Book 6 of War and Peace:


Life meanwhile – real life, with its essential interests of health and sickness, toil and rest, and its intellectual interests in thought, science, poetry, music, love, friendship, hatred, and passions-went on a s usual, independently of and apart from political friendship or enmity with Napoleon Bonaparte and from all the schemes of reconstruction


My class, a descendant of the Chicago Great Books curriculum that never quite was, is called “Human Being and Citizen.”  The course was designed by people who believed that ways of reading and ways of inquiry can be learned, and fits, more or less, in a curriculum that still, more or less, attempts the education of the rhetorician of modern liberal democracy.  Students are supposed to be educated here to do what Ms. Urciuoli does in her paper.  The structure of the curriculum, the size of the classes, the very shape of the tables we sit around are meant to further the conversation about ways of reading the world and its various discourses, and how to inquire fruitfully, and how to be persuasive in a cause discovered to be worthy and to think about all those matters of thought, science, poetry, music, love, friendship, hatred, and passion that students desperately want to spend their days and late nights talking about.  That is what we think we try to sell, and that is what the faculty thinks it is doing in its teaching, and I think it is the case that this is why students go to a liberal arts college.


I would like to claim, and sometimes do, that Chicago is about proper education and the rest of the colleges in the United States are about commerce, but to take the stance that we are the enlightened ones and the rest of the world is corrupt is to assume one of the most troubling positions taken in Ms. Urciuoli’s challenging paper.  Yes, there is plenty of evidence that even the few colleges still teaching primarily the liberal arts, not primarily vocational courses of study, promote the marketability of the degree, the skills acquired, the network joined.  Yes, even at Chicago there is an administrative discourse that would attempt to turn “the life of the mind” into a sales slogan that implies that the rigors of study develop stamina for life within the professions, hone the competitive spirit, prepare students for “globalism” (a shifty word that Ms. Urciuoli would do well to add to her study.)  But, unless this quaint desire to educate and teach for the good of the soul and the republic is a sham (as we have all been told countless times that it is) and unless the project of educating young scholars to read the world as Ms. Urciuoli does is really impossible due to larger structural reasons, then we should at least try to test the resiliency of the academic/recruitment discourses that we imagine were once, but no longer are, congruent.  The trial is worthwhile because it is so   disheartening to abandon the belief that young people, and all of us, have our larger best interests at heart, that we all take pleasure in learning, and that our instructors’ disciplines are teachable.  One place to look for support in our search for good news is in the culture of the admissions profession itself.  Based on knowing a lot of these people for a long time, I would be willing to suggest that the admissions community has its own resistance to a discourse of the marketplace, and has been more subversive of the corporate/administrative discourse than might be expected.  Anyone who knows this little world of admissions toilers would have to admit that as enrollment management becomes the model for our work rather than counseling, the profession that was once composed entirely of generalists (meaning, in part, of people who actually met kids and parents face-to-face and were led to care about them) is changing to become a profession of specialists, for whom face-to-face contact with students is inefficient and a waste of time.  As the enterprise changes, and our allegiance and reporting line switches from faculty to administration (we need big computers and technical support, we need huge postage budgets, we need marketing consultants…we bring in lots of tuition dollars), we begin to talk someone else’s language, or, our own language is infected by the jargon and arguments of the marketplace.  But, nonetheless, the people involved, even re-tooled, are very frequently believers in the romance of education, of the life-changing chance.  Many – and this could probably use some corroborating evidence – come from working class backgrounds and are people whose lives were changed by college, and they do the work they do because they want others to have the same opportunities.  The adherence to need-based financial aid within this community was almost universal and, until just a few years ago, fierce.  The admissions officer’s feelings for the poor kid who doesn’t have all the advantages, and his or her lack of sympathy for the privileged applicant who has everything, is suspected by provosts everywhere, and the suspicions are true.  In an age when virtually every admissions office has a multicultural recruiter, or, more frequently two or three, every office has at least those guardians of affirmative-action arguments, though they are usually supported by almost every colleague.  Most admissions staff members are, or were, students of literature, or history, not of business or technical things.  The nature of the admissions office, the very reporting structure that sees us removed from the academic side and placed under the administrative gaze, is changing, admittedly, but the language of commerce is not yet comfortable in our mouths.  We still imagine the faculty to be our true bosses.


It would also be worth considering the differences in what the “haves” say as opposed to what the “have-nots” feel they must say.  To some degree, perhaps to a large degree, recruiting discourse might appear commercial because have-nots, a larger and larger part of the whole thanks, in part, to our own efforts to make “selective” college admission appear more necessary for success in the world and otherwise, thanks in part to US News and World Report, etc., face a different kind of task.  Many of the have-nots amongst the former liberal-arts colleges have simply changed their missions – they are frankly purveyors of vocational education.  On the other hand, and so frequently we judge all admissions activity by the actions of the 30 or so “selective” colleges, some few colleges have so little to worry about because of the size of their endowments or their market position that they can talk confidently about leadership, etc., and really mean leadership, or “life of the mind”, and really think that they portray something true to the thoughtful collegiate experience.  Yes, some students and parents hear the talk and can only see that this capacity to lead, and to think, is marketable.  By convention, commercial talk in the recruitment discourse of the confident “haves” is unseemly, and unnecessary, and for a few colleges, academic and recruiting discourse remain congruent.  Audiences, of course, change.


Having observed closely (now out of the coffee shop in Amherst, and back in a coffee shop in Chicago) the presentation of one very fine liberal-arts college and one very fine liberal-arts college within a research university, I have to say that the commodity being sold, if we must speak in those terms, was four years of a safe, comfortable, and exciting life – professors who care, nice dorms, activities, foreign study, smart and serious classmates.  Did we all, parents and students, assume there would be a pay-off at the end?  Surely yes, but the promise of the great conversation, the reading of great books in good company, the attention of scholars whose lives are devoted to things we care about, was the pledge my daughter and her fellow students sought, and found, at these good places.  Perhaps the very privileges most students expect, the good luck of growing up ambitious and talented and well-cared for in a country that is rich and at peace, lead them to think they can afford the luxury of four years studying that which they are curious about, or even that which they love.  But their desires seem real, and they meet recruiters and faculty members who encourage them, and the talk is more of happiness than of profit.  Thank heavens, as one looks around one realizes that these students who expect so much come from many cultures, man income levels, many backgrounds, because the recruitment discourse is directed to students who can hear and understand a call to something deeply important to them.


Having made a tentative and hopeful reference to the multiplicity of cultures we attempt to attract to our campuses, I turn briefly to what Ms. Urciuoli does with “multiculturalism” in her interesting and persuasive analysis.  As admissions counselors/admissions marketers we have the same confused bundle of responses to multiculturalism that most Americans do.  We all seem to feel that multicultural arguments, especially with regard to underrepresented minority groups, emerges from some combination of guilt, belief in the educational benefit of multiple view points, excitement about the inclusion of vibrant cultures too-long ignored, concern about the future leadership of underrepresented groups and of the world, and an awareness that a “multicultural” claim is attractive to applicants and to employers.  I think it is likely that the language of multicultural recruiting is earnest and confused, but only in a subsidiary sense is about the marketability of the degree.  The same is true of the “globalism” our students seek and promised.  Language of the soul is embarrassing to us, and has been appropriated by the political enemy.  We just haven’t allowed ourselves words that can talk about the virtues of multiculturalism or globalism, or mastering disciplines, but the students have a yearning for the virtues as well as the pay-off.


Sad to say, the argument of the paper in question catches admissions discourse as it is on the point of fighting for its own soul.  The way we now do the business of admissions, the people on campus with whom we must associate, the callowness in our use of new technology which has led to less differentiation in our applications and recruitment material, the unwillingness of faculty to agree about or teach a curriculum they believe is good for students and the student community, the enrollment management model (which is about the maximization of tuition dollars (which increasingly relies upon “financial-aid leveraging”, or using discounts to take advantage of our monopolist’s position), all lead us away from romance and toward commerce.  Despite the care Ms. Urciuoli devotes to her warning, let me say, for now, as a father, teacher and recruiter, that some of the rest of us can read through the shifting words and still see, and still care to be seen as holding, values that are not defined by the marketplace.  I fear that her critique of what we say and the way we are heard, will be even more true to the situation we will all face very soon.  From here it appears that the rate of change is very fast, and that if one imagines faculty “allies” who speak a language more palatable, listen to the values expressed on the faculty side, and judge whether or not the marketplace has affected their own discourse.