When university marketing suppresses academic freedom

BWealth management and truth are not natural allies. It is a proud moment at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor that the Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom, now in its 31st year, is the oldest such lecture series in the country. The speaker(s) are chosen by a faculty governance committee, of which I am a member. This year we have chosen Dima Khalidi, the founder and director of Palestine Legal – an organization whose mission is to “support the Palestine solidarity movement by challenging efforts to legally threaten, harass and intimidate activists until silence and inaction”.

The problem: The University of Michigan is not exactly innocent of such efforts, having sanctioned Professor John Cheney-Lippold for refusing to write a letter of recommendation for a student seeking to study in Israel. In vain, Cheney-Lippold mentions his allegiance to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. One imagines that the same people who successfully organized the smear campaign against Cheney-Lippold might well get offended again, because the offending machine is still well-oiled and its switch easily flipped.
The poster announcing the conference superimposed the title of the conference: “A new McCarthyism? Academic Freedom and Palestine” – against the black and white backdrop of the Ann Arbor campus. Commissioned by the Faculty’s Senate Office and designed by art and design professors Rebekah Modrak and Nick Tobier, in consultation with Khalidi, the poster features graphics that visually reference the advertisement for the 1949 film “The Red Threat” (see Figure 1) – an informed choice, as Professors Chandler Davis, Clement Markert, and Mark Nickerson were suspended from the University of Michigan after refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The title of the conference is placed in the center of a menacing black spot. On the right, there is useful information, such as the name and title of the speaker, as well as the date, time and place of the conference. All easily readable.

How does a university advertise a conference that it would rather people not know about? The social media team, consulting neither the Faculty Senate office nor the artists, butchered the graphic in its announcement on Twitter. First, they cut out the Ann Arbor campus in the background, replacing it with an ominous image of skyscrapers (which turned out to be the Toronto-Dominion Center (see Figure 2)). They kept the stain, but “A New McCarthyism” now appears against one of UM’s two brand colors, a cheerful corn yellow. The conference subtitle – the very text that tells you why you might be interested in attending this conference – is gone. Also missing: Khalidi’s name and title. You will need to click on the link for this.

Poster of the event with the title “A new McCarthyism?  »

Figure 2

When the faculty senate office asked UM to remove the tweet and replace it with one containing the original work. Michigan’s director of social media responds:

As you can certainly understand, the reach of the major university chains extends far beyond the UM campus community. In order to best draw attention to conference registration, adhere to visual best practices for text over image, optimize social media sizing, and adhere to brand standards, the graphic has been simplified. This is a process we perform regularly when translating content for branded accounts. With this additional context, we would be happy to remove the content. Thanks for working with us.

Poster of the event with the title “A new McCarthyism?  »

picture 3

They “worked with us” creating a new image, again erasing both the subtitle and the speaker’s name and title. It turns out that “visual best practices for text over image” and “branding standards” specifically require that the word “Palestine” not appear anywhere. Toronto skyscrapers replaced with late 19th century imageandDetroit of the Last Century (see Figure 3) — McCarthyism did not just live elsewhere, it was relegated to the 19th century. Our best guess is that someone entered “historic campus” into a database, because the image shows Detroit’s Campus Martius Park, a downtown plaza that is not, in fact, a college campus. .
No, we’re saying, you really need to include the full conference title and Khalidi’s name and title. So they tried again. This time they completely abandoned the architectural features. The graphic is now simply corporate, with a portrait of Khalidi below his name and title in a type so small we missed it at first. “The new McCarthyism? now appears in corn on blue, which seems increasingly appropriate, because, by dint of credulity, “Academic Freedom and Palestine” is still missing. There are lots of empty white spaces where Ann Arbor, Toronto, and Detroit used to be (see Figure 4).

Poster of the event with the title “A new McCarthyism?  »

Figure 4

We insist, being the unpleasant type. Version 4 is coming. The caption is finally here, in a type a quarter the size of McCarthy (see Figure 5). We refuse to sign. An even uglier graphic is coming (see Figure 6). Khalidi’s name remains tiny, but it’s kind of a triumph. We defeated the social media office. Image lacks aesthetic or historical integrity, fonts overlap, white background bleeds into Twitter white space. No design student would get a passing grade. But we made them say “Palestine”.

This exchange lasted several hours, and it was terribly hilarious. But maybe it’s not so funny that for half a day, UM’s brand managers made it their mission to erase the word Palestine from a conference on erasing Palestinian voices and erase the visual traces of UM’s historic complicity in one of the darkest chapters in postwar American history.

It’s no fun that the new McCarthyism now comes in corn and blue. It is no fun that a university should show such disrespect for the work of its own faculty. As Modrak told me, “Graphic art is public scholarship; changing it is like changing the content of someone’s book.

Poster of the event with the title “A new McCarthyism?  Academic Freedom and Palestine »

Figure 5

Poster of the event with the title “A new McCarthyism?  Academic Freedom and Palestine »

Figure 6

It’s no fun that we keep talking about diversity, equity and inclusion while burying reality under a shroud of corporate aesthetics that flattens every idea, every image, every thought.

Certainly, this purposeful anti-intellectualism is the soft tyranny of branding, not the harsh tyranny of censorship. We are not in Texas or Florida. Nobody suggested disinviting Khalidi. However, it should be noted that our Acting President, Mary Sue Coleman, who had promised to introduce this year’s speaker, discovered a scheduling conflict once she learned who it was. Don’t say Palestine. Do not hear Palestine. Thanks for working with us.

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