York University isn't so dissimilar to any midsize corporation. It figures out how best to do the sell and then markets accordingly. Thus, the university has decided campus student rebellion and hipness have their uses and has borrowed them for its prize-winning branding campaign. The new adverts tout the school as "the interdisciplinary university," an iconoclastic place more concerned with knowledge and societal issues than with the formal boundaries of departments and disciplines.
One of the panels shows a picture of a wooden chair and the words "A philosopher sees simplicity, a designer sees a classic, an environmentalist sees deforestation." Then the motto "Redefine the possible," an interesting tweak on the radical student slogan of 1968, "Everything is possible."
While one could argue that this pitch may indeed attract thoughtful folks to the York campus, some staff and students find the irony of such ads disturbing.
"The campaign had 'question' and 'provoke' plastered all over the walls," says professor David Noble. "But when [summarily expelled political activist] Dan Freeman-Moloy did this, he was banned for three years."
Indeed, it was the university's rough handling of protest - president Lorna Marsden actually banned demos in the central student commons, Vari Hall - that first inspired activists to challenge the admin's media message monopoly. Late last winter, following a student anti-war demo that brought Toronto police to Vari, a York press release condemned the students for attacking officers this despite footage that seemed to indicate the reverse.
"The community voiced its concerns [about the Iraq war] through large demos as well as statements by senators, faculty associations, student government and unions," says student activist Isabel Macdonald. "Meanwhile, media relations justified the administration's actions while speaking in the name of York as a whole."
This unusually deep campus rift explains why activists despair of ever getting their voices heard all the more so since the admin has a full-time former corporate-sector press officer.
Their solution is novel. They've started their own media relations office, dubbed York Public Access.
"The reason for it," says Noble, "is York's control over access to the media, and the media's access to York. York is a public institution, and its responsibility is to the public."
That is not always apparent. The admin's response to conflict-of-interest charges over the development of university land is a case in point. When the controversy broke, York secured retired judge Edward Saunders to investigate the claims. Saunders concluded that no wrong was committed because York is not a "public institution," positioning that was quickly adopted by York's official mouthpiece.
But there are other views on whether there is a public interest in York's development plans. "A lot of [faculty] at York are concerned about [the deal], but they have no access to the media," says Noble. "There's an ad hoc relationship between a few faculty and reporters, but we want to regularize it."
At York's media relations office, Nancy White says she's not spending much time thinking about the YPA bid. "People have a right to express their views," she says. "But we're here to represent the university on issues."
Responds Macdonald, "A university is supposed to be a sphere where we have debate and disagreement, and that's at odds with a model that is much more akin to corporate public relations." Of the YPA she says,"We are going to encourage people who have media contacts to share them, and encourage people who have stories to share them," she says.
"Once we get it going," says Noble, "YPA will be hot. And it will be copied."