A positive attitude about the University’s ad campaign

I found myself asking what, exactly, had made me so negative about “Driven to Discover” in the first place?

by John Hoff

I confess, at first I thought the University’s “Driven to Discover” ad campaign was a big waste of time, effort and $2 million. That kind of money will buy a lot of Ramen noodles. It would buy, for example, safety features on the Washington Avenue Bridge so people can’t easily jump from the structure.

But, recently, one of the questions from the ad campaign had such a profound, positive impact on my 9-year-old son that I’ve become an enthusiastic convert to “Driven to Discover” and the notion that “We are all search engines.” And, I found myself asking what, exactly, had made me so negative about “Driven to Discover” in the first place?

That is a question which doesn’t take great minds from the University to ponder. The answer is “Grand Forks, North Dakota.” It was my painful misfortune to reside in Grand Forks when certain local leaders had a dimly-lit notion to launch a “branding effort” to dub Grand Forks and East Grand Forks the “Grand Cities.” The two cities were, so the campaign stated, “Simply Grand.”

The Grand Cities are, however, anything but grand. One main route of approach is Gateway Drive, which sounds quite scenic, but, in reality, is a vista of auto salvage yards and the reek of industrial stink from potato processing at Simplot. If you ever stood on the University of North Dakota campus smelling the stench of Simplot, you would think twice about eating McDonald’s fries ever again.

So my experience with a “branding effort” was that such campaigns are used to cover up ugly, smelly reality with a slogan, sucking down big piles of cash while paying college students pathetic North Dakota wages. Because of such lame-brained efforts, even the very phrases “branding effort” and “ad campaign” need new branding efforts and ad campaigns.

But, thank God, I no longer live in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Walking on our pretty, pleasant-smelling University campus with my little son some weeks ago, before the sidewalk signs were removed, my child stopped at every “Driven to Discover” question and answer. One asked, “Is the Euler-Mascheroni constant irrational?”

If you are a parent, the signs can’t help but remind you of the constant inquiries of a small child, wanting to know why, for example, snow isn’t blue like a Minnesota lake? I explained to my child that some math problems have never been solved, and this was probably one of them. I speculated that the person asking the question was already aware of the difficulty of an answer, and was “just showing off.”

My child excels in math and cares less for reading and writing. He might very well have been fathered by space aliens instead of by me. (Riddle me this, Driven to Discover. How can children be so different from their parents?) My child wanted to know: How could there be a math problem nobody, not even really smart college professors, could solve?

I told my child there were, in fact, such problems. Some math problems are so hard, and have defied solution for so long, that a million-dollar prize was offered for solving them. I wasn’t sure if the Euler-Mascheroni constant was one of them, but such “million-dollar math problems” did exist. Immediately, my child wanted to learn more about how to win the prize money, so we used a search engine to find some articles. Reading about the million-dollar prizes, my child’s eyes glowed with the space alien blood I am sure runs through his veins.

Within the week, fulfilling a promise, I purchased a book for my child about the seven great “Millennium Problems.” Reading the first chapter of the book, I found it quite difficult and arcane. I was worried my child would be discouraged by the book’s difficulty, so I warned him it was a “grown-up book” and he might be 17 or 18 before it made much sense. Perhaps, I told him, if he put the book under his pillow, the million-dollar answers would come “like the Tooth Fairy.”

He was worried somebody else would solve the problems and get the prize money. I told him not to worry. One of the problems had defied solution for more than a century and, besides, the people who award the prizes would probably come up with a new set of problems. In my son’s copy of the book, I jotted down my own unproven, abandoned mathematical hypothesis, which I crafted during my own unsuccessful junior high struggles in algebra: There is a hidden, mysterious relationship between phi and the pattern of prime numbers.

I was amazed to watch my child try to tackle this book, sometimes asking me what certain words meant. But I didn’t know the answers. This never happens to me. I can always tell my child what a word means. I couldn’t help but notice my 9-year-old was reading this massively difficult book voluntarily in the lobby of a movie theater, ignoring a nearby video arcade.

And that was when I decided I had changed my attitude about the University’s ad campaign.

Besides, it makes sense there would be a time of sarcasm and parody in response to Driven to Discover, a period of adjustment.

But finals and term papers are nearly upon us. So now is a good time to embrace this slogan, to study hard, to become very smart. Now is the ultimate push toward the academic finish line.

We are the University of Minnesota, and we are Driven to Discover.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected].