An Educational Prank
Over the past few decades, corporations have expanded their presence in our lives, and as a professor I have seen it happen in higher education. This has resulted in more “efficient,” “cost-effective” universities with more students and fewer tenured faculty to teach them, like at my school. We have been encouraged to make “partnerships” in and out of the classroom to make up for a series of budget shortfalls, such as naming public health departments after insurance companies.
This got me thinking, “What would a liberal arts education look like if McDonalds underwrote it?” Here was my answer: I had six corporations sponsor my Intro to Media Production class. I should say with a wink that the companies “sponsored” the course. In actuality, there was no contractual exchange of money or services and, to be honest, some of the businesses I contacted didn’t want to be involved in my scheme. During that semester, I began referring to my syllabus as a McSyllabus, and for the length of the semester my corporately sponsored name was Professor McKembrew McLeod. I even planned to plaster a tweed sports coat with these brands—McDonalds, MTV, AT&T, Disney, Pfizer, and Sony Music—kind of like a NASCAR outfit, but with elbow patches. Alas, I never went through with that part of my plan, as there were too many papers to grade, not enough hours in the day.
However, I did have time for a little mischief. After acquiring the email addresses of all the pro-corporate University of Iowa Regents, I wrote each of them posing as a professor-ally, telling them that I convinced six corporations to sponsor my undergrad class. “In a class exercise I thought you’d appreciate,” I wrote them, “we are imagining what it would be like if several corporations sponsored this class. In one assignment, the students will be making an advertisement for one of these ‘clients.’” In the email I happily explained how I placed McDonald’s and MTV logos all over my syllabus, and after I enthused that promoting corporate brands was the future of higher education, I mock-complained that, “too many professors at the university are out of touch with real world business practices.”
Because I contacted the regents in the middle of contentious battle with the university community—and given my prankish history, which is just one Google click away—I worried about two things. Either the regents would (a) see through my sardonic rhetoric and try to have me fired for being a smart-ass, or they would (b) affirm the e-mail’s core sentiments. One way or the other, it was a lose-lose proposition. I concluded my email by stating, “Because it is so important to organize the university more like a business, I thought you would appreciate and agree with the philosophy that underpins this project.”
A couple days later, I received an email from one of the regents. “Conceptually, it sounds great,” he wrote. “Happy Thanksgiving!” I guess I should start stitching together that logo-slathered tweed jacket after all. The elbow patches are prime product placement real estate.
Although the regent’s reply was not a smoking gun admission—yes, product placement in the classroom is part of our nefarious plan for the future!—my suspicions were nevertheless confirmed. It was another example of how a trick can help underscore an important truth, or at least stir up a debate. Although classroom sponsorship proposal was a minor prank primarily done to entertain myself, I later turned it into an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education. By getting that regent to take the bait, I used it to start a conversation in a national publication about something that concerned me.
Below is the original version of this essay, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
“An Educational Prank”
By Kembrew McLeod
The Chronicle of Higher Education, Monday, January 15, 2007
In a groundbreaking marketing move, six corporations sponsored my undergraduate course during the fall of 2006. To be more accurate, I should say, with a wink and a nod, that they “sponsored” the course.
There was no contractual exchange of money or services in this faux patronage experiment and, to be honest, some of the businesses didn’t want to be involved in my scheme. (One company representative, sensing the political motivations behind my endeavor, told me via an e-mail message: “You will not use the Disney logos or any connection to the Disney Co. in your class.”)
I began referring to my syllabus as a McSyllabus, and for the duration of the semester my corporately sponsored name was Professor McKembrew McLeod.
I even planned to plaster a tweed sports coat with the logos of my pseudo-sponsors — McDonald’s, MTV, AT&T, Disney, Pfizer, and Sony Music. Kind of like a NASCAR outfit, but with elbow patches. Alas, I never went through with that part of my plan, as there were too many papers to grade and not enough time.
My experiment was a provocation, a quiet protest that escalated near the end of the semester after a contentious move made by the University of Iowa’s Board of Regents. That body had increasingly adopted a top-down management style and embraced a corporate model for the university, and demonstrated that last November by scuttling a 10-month presidential search because it didn’t like the finalists.
The board’s actions inspired me to push my prank even further, and so I personally contacted each regent, telling them about my plan. It came as no surprise when one regent — unaware of my satirical motives — happily endorsed the idea of a corporately sponsored classroom. But more on that later.
I should point out that I write this column from a protected position. As a newly tenured professor, I have strong free-speech rights in the workplace — a right that is weakening across the country as colleges reduce the number of tenure-track professorships. Cutting the workforce and extracting more labor for less compensation may increase the bottom line of corporations, but it’s no way to run a university, for a number of reasons.
Close attention from faculty members was a privilege I enjoyed while attending a midsized state university in Virginia during the early 1990s. That one-on-one interaction broadened my intellectual horizons, and it transformed my life.
But few students I have met at Iowa have had the same experience. My own department, for example, is bursting with more than 1,300 majors, but we have only 12 full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Of course, some of our students do receive the special attention they deserve, but it comes from the goodwill of a faculty whose workweek easily exceeds 40 hours (not to mention our hardworking graduate students, visiting instructors, and office staff members).
The arts and humanities have obviously been hit hard, but even “big money” units have been affected. For instance, the blossoming university-industrial complex has experienced serious consequences in certain areas of basic scientific research, where the sharing of information is becoming less and less free. As universities and their corporate partners place a greater emphasis on developing valuable patented technologies, the norm of openness among scientists has eroded.
That has been widely documented, including in a survey of nearly 2,000 university-based geneticists the results of which were reported in the January 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. According to the survey, a third of the scientists agreed that it was becoming more common in their field to withhold data for financial reasons.
About three years ago I interviewed David J. Skorton, then the president of Iowa, about some of those issues. During our talk Skorton told me that he understood and took seriously the expectation that we should do “the best we can to commercialize technologies developed in the universities for the state’s good.”
“But,” the president quickly added, “my own point of view has been, and will remain, that I am more concerned with freedom of expression than with the commercial imperative.”
I’m sure his philosophy did not sit well with the university’s regents, with whom the president had skirmished over other issues. When he left last year to become president of Cornell University, few people on our campus saw his departure as a coincidence.
Iowa’s presidential searches have always been campus-led affairs, but after Skorton announced his resignation, for the first time in the university’s history, the board appointed a regent as head of the search panel and exercised unprecedented control over the committee’s operations. The regents also appointed the former dean of the business college as Iowa’s interim president, who is quoted in a Q&A on the university’s Web site as saying that “in educational programs and in research and clinical programs, we should seek partnerships, relationships where we’re not bearing all of the costs and we’re sharing the rewards.”
All of which got me thinking, “What would a liberal-arts education look like if McDonald’s underwrote it?”
My project gained a new sense of urgency when the regents terminated the search for Skorton’s replacement. In a cryptic press release, the regents explained that the board “needed candidates who had more experience as leaders who oversaw complex health-sciences operations as well as the myriad of other academic and nonacademic operations of a large university.” The Des Moines Register reported that the final applicant pool did not include an earlier candidate who had been favored by the board president, a candidate with significant ties to the insurance industry.
This disturbing sequence of events prompted me to send the aforementioned e-mail message to each member of Iowa’s board explaining my prank in a straight-faced manner:”In a class exercise I thought you’d appreciate, we are imagining what it would be like if several corporations sponsored this class. In one assignment, the students will be making an advertisement for one of these ‘clients,'” I wrote, adding, “Because it is so important to organize the university more like a business, I thought you would appreciate and agree with the philosophy that underpins this project.”
I concluded by mock complaining, “I believe that too many professors at the university are out of touch with real-world business practices.”
Because I contacted the regents in the middle of the presidential-search firestorm — and given my prankish history, which is just one Google click away — I worried about two things. Either the regents would (a) see through my sardonic rhetoric and try to have me fired for being a smart aleck, or (b) affirm the e-mail’s core sentiments.
One way or the other, it was a lose-lose proposition.
A few days later, I received an e-mail message from one regent, who cheerfully wrote: “Conceptually, it sounds great. Happy Thanksgiving.” Although this was not a smoking-gun admission — “yes, product placement in the classroom is part of our nefarious plan for the future!” — my suspicions were nevertheless confirmed.
The troubles faced by the University of Iowa (and our nation’s universities, more generally) run deeper than a mere bureaucratic squabble. This episode highlights the systemic problems that emerge when we try to turn the university into “an economic engine for the state,” a term our administrators are fond of using.
Perhaps I should start stitching together that logo-slathered tweed jacket after all.
Kembrew McLeod is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa. His latest book, Freedom of Expression: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property will be published this spring by the University of Minnesota Press.