What catchphrases is your University using to sell itself to prospective students?

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Writing for U.S. News and World Report, Luke Mullins has compiled “The Real Estate Euphemism Pocket Translator.”

Here is a sample of the entries:

Cozy Home: Too small for your big-screen TV.

East Access to Everywhere: Can mean backing up to an expressway.

Finishing Touches Needed: Often means lighting, hardware, paint, wood trim, and carpet.

Grandma’s House: It hasn’t been updated since she moved in and smells like her.

Light and Bright: Everything is white. White ceramic tile for flooring and bright white paint on everything else. Looks like a hospital.

Light and Airy Basement: You can see sunlight through the cracks in the foundation.

Low-Maintenance Front Yard: The front yard is paved over with concrete or asphalt.

Mechanic’s Dream: A real dump but with a large garage.

Retro Décor: Original avocado paisley vinyl floors.

Turnkey: They wish to sell the home with the furniture from the 1980s that they don’t wish to haul away.

Very Bright and Sunny Home: Can mean that there is not a tree in sight.

Walk to Schools, Shopping, and Entertainment: Located in the heart of a retail district.

Mullins’ full article is available at: money.usnews.com/money/blogs/the-home-front/2008/09/09/the-real-estate-euphemism-pocket-translator_print.html

My personal favorite description from a real-estate ad is one that I came across in our local newspaper: “Magnificent home with a dramatic pond-side view.” That must be quite a pond.

In any case, reading this piece made me curious about how our colleges and universities engage in much the same marketing techniques in their self-descriptions.

For instance, here is the “welcome” message on the website for my institution, Wright State University:

“Welcome to Wright State University!

“Our diverse and welcoming community will be the perfect setting for you to gain the knowledge and experiences necessary for today’s global workplace. Wright State offers more than 100 academic programs, from accountancy to prehealth programs, ensuring that you will find the right fit for you. Come and explore the many ways this university should be your new home away from home.”

To be honest, I never looked at any of this until now. But the message seems fairly clear, if rather abstract. “Community” suggests something safe and familiar, which seems a deliberate descriptive choice since many of our students come from small towns and rural areas. But “diverse” suggests something more cosmopolitan and is more congruent with the phrase “global workplace.” The choice of “workplace” suggests an emphasis on being employable, an emphasis extended with the selection of “accountancy” and “prehealth programs” as the illustrations of the range of degrees that we offer. (No mention here of a liberal arts degree, though as a former liberal arts major, I can tell you that “prehealth” seems an extremely awkward contraction for degrees that prepare students for medical school and other advanced degrees in medicine.)

The phrase “home away from home” is, of course, a cliché that suggests more a motel for business travelers than a university. But, again, many of our students do come from small communities that place great importance on family involvement.

The university website also includes a virtual tour for students who cannot schedule an in-person campus tour or who are not yet sure that such a tour would be worth their time. The virtual tour does highlight some of the very attractive buildings and open spaces on the Wright State campus, but it also includes some elements of dubious interest that may actually serve to make the opposite of the intended point—that is, if these are some of the most interesting things on this campus, then it is clearly not a very interesting place.

In that context, here is my favorite dubious stop on this virtual campus tour:

“The Circle and Alumni Tower: You’ll get a special invitation from the president of the university to meet here for a cookout at the beginning of every school year. The tower also adds another plus to graduation: you can take the Alumni Tower traditional walk underneath it at the send-off picnic! This iconic tower stands behind the student union and is another great gathering place on campus.”

First, I would like to know if any student has ever enrolled at Wright State University and specifically looked forward to the cookout with the president or the “traditional walk.”

Second, most colleges and universities much older than Wright State have this sort of landmark. But, typically, such landmarks become landmarks because of some idiosyncratic turns in the institutional history or some idiosyncratic features of the campus culture. I don’t think that an institution can simply and credibly assert that something deliberately constructed as a landmark fulfills the same historical and cultural function of something that gradually evolves into such a landmark.

I am thinking of the condom-filled cannon on the campus in, if I remember correctly, John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Irving gave several readings from his work at Lehigh University while I was a graduate student there. And one evening, on the drive to a local restaurant ahead of one of those readings, he passed the cemetery on Church Street in Bethlehem. Standing on a small knoll in that cemetery, which makes it all the more prominent, is the most lifelike phallic cemetery monument that anyone has ever had erected over a grave. During a later reading at Lehigh, Irving remarked that that monument had provided the model for a landmark in one of his novels. But a condom-filled cannon and a monument not just phallic but actually shaped like a penis would together seem too much for a single novel, even a free-wheeling one such as Garp. So I clearly need to re-read Irving’s novels if I wish to resolve this pressing issue.

In any case, if you have a chance, take a look at the self-descriptions provided by your college or university to prospective students and feel free to share them as comments posted to this piece.

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