My thoughts on Driven to Discover

What is the University administration selling in its latest ad campaign?

Jason Stahl

Recently, like many of you, I received an e-mail from the University administration letting me know that they wanted my opinion of their ubiquitous “Driven to Discover” ad campaign. However, confusion set in as I went to take the online survey. Instead of a place to offer my opinion, the majority of the survey consisted of multiple choice questions such as, “How does the campaign make me feel about the University?” In fact, only one question offers a place to write one’s opinion of the campaign and even this question is qualified and limited. In other words, I left the survey feeling as if the University’s marketing department did not want my opinion so much as it wanted to tell me about the ad campaign in another way.

Luckily, I have a 750-word column to write what I could not in the survey. However, in fairness to the University’s marketers, I will evaluate the campaign on their terms. According to the e-mail I received, the campaign’s goal is to convey “the value of the University to the general public.” So, to what extent does “Driven to Discover” accomplish this goal?

The campaign works best when conveying the value of research done at the University. Looking at the various print, TV and radio ads, a consistent theme of “question and answer” emerges which goes a long way toward explaining to the general public what, exactly, professors do in their research. For instance, in one print ad, a person asks a question about how we can end our dependence on foreign oil, to which a professor of ecology answers that he is working on hybrid plants which can produce more energy than a single fuel source crop. This is, obviously, important research described in a succinct way.

However, there are also drawbacks to this approach. Namely, it treats professors and their research as “product lines” and thus implicitly argues that to have value, a professor’s research must have a utilitarian worth that can be “sold” to the general public. Such a view clearly favors departments in science and engineering (the majority of “Driven to Discover” ads) which more easily fit this mold. But does this mean that research done in the humanities and social sciences is not of value? Does the administration consider such research unimportant if it cannot be sold as “product” in the same way research in the sciences and engineering are?

I would also argue that this “product line” setup, in addition to privileging certain departments, furthers the misconception that research is created by individual professors cloistered away in their offices or labs. It would be more accurate if – rather than having individual professors answering the questions in the ads – professors were instead accompanied by the research assistants, students, staff and other professors without whom their work could not exist. It would be better if we saw in the ads a more accurate reflection of the University community which helps create knowledge – rather than pretending that all knowledge here is somehow created by individual minds working alone.

It is this lack of community that is, ultimately, the biggest drawback of the campaign. If you did not know anything about the University, “Driven to Discover” would have you believe that all that occurs at the University is utilitarian research being performed by individual professors. With the exception of a single unclear on-campus ad, students and teaching are absent. Is the University administration really saying that teaching ranks so low on the “value of the University to the general public?” I believe that this is exactly the implicit message of “Driven to Discover.”

However, this lack of emphasis on teaching and community within “Driven to Discover” should not come as a surprise if it is viewed as a component of the administration’s “strategic positioning plan” and its goal of making the University “one of the top three public research universities in the world within a decade.” With such a plan, teaching inevitably takes a back seat to selling research products.

While research here at the University is clearly of value to the general public, so is teaching. In fact, I am sure most students and parents actually care more about the latter than the former. We not only need an ad campaign which reflects this reality, but we also need an administration which recognizes it as well. Right now we have neither.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]