A Rhetorical Train Wreck
As a participant-observer, I've been thinking a lot about the UC financial crisis and the many rhetorical failures that have gone along with attempting to make it an issue on the public policy agenda. Kooky ideas like Leland Yee's plan to take away the UC system's longtime constitutionally protected independence from the state legislature may make sense to people who think that the deliberative processes and fiscal management of the University of California are as dysfunctional as the state assembly. Thankfully, the ten campus system is still producing wealth for the state and educating a generation of deserving students, albeit with smaller incoming classes, higher fees, and far fewer resources. But terrible public relations certainly may make it seem like the University of California is a hermetically sealed site of discontent, back-biting, and disgruntled inertia.
From the awful interview of Mark Yudof with the New York Times that has been turned into "found poetry" to the mock funeral for the Master Plan by Cal State University faculty, it has been one painfully unpersuasive rhetorical occasion after another.
Why would you want to associate your cause with death? When have mock funerals ever worked rhetorically? Why even bring up a cemetery if you are a university president speaking to the New York Times? Doesn't making the institution seem moribund only become a self-fulfilling prophecy? In many ways, unfortunately, our educational "public option" is facing some of the same rhetorical challenges faced by advocates for the commons in the healthcare debate.
And the first rule of rhetoric is that it's not about what you want; it is about what your audience wants. This seems to be entirely missing from public appeals. Thus, the Facebook/Twitter/YouTube attempts at outreach in social media venues are failing entirely.
I also thinkU.C. faculty need to think about rhetorical actions other than campus protests. The gains of the civil rights, anti-war, and social justice movements came about because people saw signs of the debate in their own streets and communities. The question is how to make the U.C. system seem relevant to the non-academic concerns in people's lives. With that in mind, here are five modest suggestions.
1) Blue and Gold Branding If every business that recruited U.C. graduates, benefitted from U.C. patented technologies, and depended on the business of U.C. students and alumni flew a simple blue and gold flag to signify the colors of the public system, there could be whole streets that would testify to the importance of public higher education. Really love U.C.? Please paint your business's facade blue and gold.
2) Life Not Death There's no money for airtime, but a web-based campaign with online video could be very persuasive. "U.C. saved my life" could have former patients from the medical centers, people who were protected by safety technologies, and many other members of the general public who benefit from the presence of public research universities in their state.
3) A U.C. Professor Remembers Me Anyone who's ever stood at the front of the lecture hall knows that it is not the position of invulnerability and impersonality that it may seem to members of the public. What if every U.C. faculty member sent out a t-shirt, e-mail, or greeting card to a former student that he or she remembered well? Perhaps people in the media should be first choices, but the students who also struggled or came into the system with the deck stacked against them might appreciate a warm greeting and a call for support. You remember them and can ask them to remember you in advocating for the public system.
4) We Are the World Counter the perception of dischord with a music video of physicists, economists, critical theorists, philosophers, dancers, etc. lip-synching to a catchy tune, perhaps one written by a U.C. graduate. Make it goofy enough to reach the YouTube million views mark like the Hey Ya video from the Navy.
5) Big Sister / Big Brother Many UC students are the first members of their families to go to college and they represent the rich diversity of the state. What about collecting the drawings of UC campuses done by younger siblings to emphasize the importance of having admission continue to be available to hardworking students from hardworking families? How does U.C. look to them as a site of opportunity?
None of these may be great ideas, but at least they are designed to encourage a serious discussion about public rhetoric. Let's have a serious discussion about sending out a coherent message. Coherent messages work, as Obama's "Change" campaign for the presidency shows. Let's not be so suspicious of public relations that we refuse to engage with the taxpayers for whom we all work.