A Critique of the Polytechnic Concept
“Ohio’s Polytechnic University.” This is the new tagline for the University of Akron, unveiled May 15 at the Cleveland City Club. The president and trustees say they will go even further and consider renaming the university to reflect an emphasis on polytechnics if their high-priced marketing campaign goes well.
This marketing campaign is based on the assumption that most people do not know what a “polytechnic” is and can be persuaded that it is something exciting and enticing. But there is a big difference between describing a “polytechnic” in glowing terms to a small focus group and persuading a wide selection of potential students that this is what they want. A new statewide survey by Public Policy Polling revealed that only 22% of Ohioans now have a favorable view of a “polytechnic,” whereas the majority, 58%, have no opinion of it, indicating that the rebranding has not generated broad new interest in The University of Akron (Akron Beacon Journal, June 12). Will a new slogan alone really draw thousands of new students from outside northeast Ohio and turn the university into a Virginia Tech or a Georgia Tech?
While the term “polytechnic” faces indifference, at best, in much of the state (a bad start for any marketing campaign), it faces stiff opposition right here in Akron and northeast Ohio. In a survey of UA faculty, 77% were opposed to changing the university’s name to reflect a polytechnic emphasis. An alumna started a petition against a name change and gathered nearly 11,000 signatures in just a few days (http://chn.ge/1OJCnYn). An unscientific poll by the Akron Beacon Journal revealed that some 80% of the respondents opposed calling the university a “polytechnic.” Current students staged a demonstration against the rebranding on May 8, as well as posting hundreds of negative comments on the university’s Facebook page. If current students are repelled by the idea of attending a polytechnic, it’s a strong indicator that potential students won’t be attracted to such an institution, either.
Lawrence Burns, university vice-president for advancement, was quoted in the Akron Beacon Journal (June 1) as recognizing the strong opposition to the “rebrand.” He suggested that it might take “two or three years” to “educate” the community about “the definition of polytechnic.” Attempting to strike an upbeat note, he suggested that students, faculty, alumni, and community members might become more “understanding and supportive” after a few years and a planned “marathon” of advertising and social media posts.
Clearly, in spite of the marketing strategy, UA faculty, students, alumni, and community members already know what a “polytechnic” is, and they do not like it. At best, they see a “polytechnic” as a university where engineering and polymer science rule, and everything else is irrelevant. Based on decisions now being made at UA, they may be right. The College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering currently has 32 full-time faculty (two may be retiring), and their presidentially-approved strategic plan is to increase that number to 50. In Arts and Sciences, however, where faculty numbers have been shrinking for years and dozens more are planning retirement this summer, only one is currently slated for replacement with a tenure-track position. Going forward, the president plans to find funding for his priorities of engineering and polymer science, yet fund other faculty lines only if there happens to be any money left over. As he said on June 10, “This budget was strategically constructed to fund the high priorities and then to fund historical commitments up to available funding levels.” We’ll note that it was a “fund the faculty last” approach that originally created strong support for a faculty union..
Disturbingly, turning UA into an engineering school is not the worst that alumni, students, and prospective students fear: others see a “polytechnic” as primarily a vocational or trade school. Many have quoted the dictionary and Wikipedia definitions to that effect. They trust these sources more than the marketers’ efforts to dust off the roots of “polytechnic” in Greek terms meaning “many crafts” or “many arts.” Some have pointed to Britain’s “polytechnic institutes” rebranding themselves as “universities” because they believed that label was an upgrade. Fears of “Ohio Polytechnic” becoming the equivalent of ITT Tech are not assuaged simply by announcements of a new Center that will welcome professional dance companies to campus--a Center pursued by the School of Dance long before the current administration arrived. It is the only example of support for the arts and humanities that the president has offered.
It does not help that at the rollout of the tagline the president stressed that all learning had to be “applied,” “connected to industry,” and that course content must have a “practical application,” preparing students for “technical jobs.” All of this overlooks the fact that in an era of rapidly changing technology, today’s practical skills will be obsolete tomorrow. What employers want is not specific training but rather the ability to read, analyze, problem solve, communicate, and work with others productively (source: Michigan State University Career Services and the Collegiate Employment Research Institute). There must be a place at the university for programs that are not technical or directly connected to industry. There must continue to be majors that students pursue because they find them fulfilling and rewarding, especially as there is no evidence that such students are at a disadvantage in the job market.
It is also disturbing that the University of Akron is taking as its model the University of Wisconsin at Stout, which has adopted the slogan, “Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University.” This indicates an intent to remake UA completely, and it will not be for the better.
Wisconsin-Stout defines a polytechnic as a “comprehensive” university, that is, one that primarily offers undergraduate programs, with a handful of masters programs and no PhD programs. It has never aspired to be a research university and enrolls under 9,500 students. Its strength is professional training in such areas as social work, counseling, hotel management, and industrial design. Such popular majors at UA as English, Mathematics, Communications, Philosophy, Theatre, Dance, and Modern Languages are at best possible minors (http://www.uwstout.edu/programs/ugrad.cfm). In contrast, UA, as a research university, offers many PhD programs as well as programs leading to Associates, Bachelors, and Masters degrees, and has had in recent years between 26,000 and 30,000 students. UA students have choices and opportunities that students at UW-Stout do not.
If the administration seeks to support specific programs like polymers and engineering, they might do better to create named centers within the university, rather than limiting the focus of the entire university. Our strength IS our diversity. Students choose The University of Akron for the variety of excellent courses and degree options they find here. The only people to benefit from a rebranding of the university are the owners of the businesses who would be manufacturing the thousands of new road and building signs, letterheads, advertisements and countless other objects that carry The University of Akron name.
If the administration is convinced that The University of Akron will be a more successful institution by narrowing its offerings and focus, it needs to communicate a clear vision for what such an institution will look like, and give a rationale for why any prospective student should choose to attend an institution that offers them less, rather than more, choice in programs and courses. The administration also needs to share with the community their plans for getting there. Which programs will be cut, and why? How will closing these programs affect other, related programs? The current strategy of simply not replacing retiring faculty in the unfavored departments is not a strategic way to go about turning this university into a polytechnic, and it is, frankly, a risky move for an institution so dependent on the enrollment dollars it receives from students in the humanities and social sciences.
Rather than wasting already limited resources on a “rebranding” campaign that students, faculty, and alumni have already rejected, the university would be better served by strengthening its faculty and the programs that the majority of its students have already chosen. The University of Akron has many strengths; it’s time the administration invested in them.
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