Stephen Dunne, Lecturer in Social Theory and Consumption and the School, considers the strange role played by mottos in the marketing of Higher Education
When the University of Leicester recently changed its corporate logo, the decision was made to omit its inaugural motto from the crest’s imagery. And so a few Latin words, themselves translations of an earlier spiritual vernacular, were excised. Here’s a brief explanation of what that decision amounted to, why it was taken and how it was made.
As the upper middle class targets of Universities once knew, the Ut Vitam Habeant which used to adorn the corporate logo makes a conspicuous nod to John 10: 10. It is there, those chaps used to have to recognise, that Jesus Christ presented to the Pharisees the nature of his pastoralism which had been and implied the promise of his sacrifice which was to come. He suggests the way to his followers, that is, in order “that they might have life”.
The new logo no longer obliges audiences to know what Ut Vitam Habeant means or even where it came from. Rather than being invited to process the previous logo’s peculiar invocation to compare the University of Leicester to the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, contemporary target markets and the wider stakeholder community receive a very different message. The word of higher education brand consultancy now has it that image shall supersede text. With this, the life given by the Lord withdraws from the world of our logo. To those who would listen, the new logo speaks only of its own silence.
How has this shift in emphasis been received? Well on the one hand, “[C]urrent and potential students”, following “nearly 18 months work…involving workshops, focus groups and one to one interviews” are said to have welcomed the new logo’s “more modern, digital feel”. But the move hasn’t been seen as a blessing which has entered everybody’s lives, by the responsible agency’s own admission, since “some alumni, naturally rooted in their pasts, are mourning the loss of some of the more traditional elements”. The new logo’s very existence symbolises the victory of the ‘modern’ over the ‘traditional’. That’s what we’ve been asked to believe by the agency, in any case.
This is strategic marketing in action. The decision to remove Ut Vitam Habeant implies that bookish Latin – and all the legalised bureaucracy and theologised obedience that goes with it – is no longer the contemporary university’s principal currency. Rendered affirmatively, we might say that an appeal to the idea of a University as a site of rational dialogue, whatever its linguistic mode of expression, has become obvious if implicit. You don’t need to be able to speak Latin to come here, the present absence of a motto now says. All the world’s languages can make equal claims on learning, it follows. And there is probably some progressive reassurance to be found in the crediting of such an interpretation.
An alternative interpretation – not necessarily that of “some alumni” – renders the omission of Ut Vitam Habeant as a proxy for the anti-intellectualism through which Universities seek to substantiate their contemporary function. And why not?! What good is the naive and anachronistic appeal to rationality and impartiality these days while we’re being drip fed the idea that we’ve had it with expertise, given up on truth and capitulated to populism! Wouldn’t it be much better if contemporary university occupants got involved in the real world, instead of clambering further and further up the ivory tower? Isn’t it time – now more than ever – for academics to intervene within political affairs, to put their erudition to use? That’s what many people now say.
But that has always been what many people have said. It predates 2016. It predates the Book of John. It even predates Thrasymachus, who told Socrates that “The just is nothing else than the advantage of the stronger”. Those who find little consolation in the reign of real-politic, by contrast, aspire to a juridical situation in which reason, rather than arbitrariness, reigns sovereign. Universities have provided one possible foundation for such an aspiration, one practical manifestation of the Christian determination to make contemplation its own reward, one institutional articulation of the Socratic ethos which invites wisdom’s light into the world. Their very existence suggests that reason, powerlessness in the face of violence, remains nevertheless capable of disarming power. The symbolic abandonment of such an institutional principle isn’t just a strategic marketing consideration, then, though it is at least that.
As for “Ut Vitam Habeant”, it hasn’t been utterly sacrificed to strategic marketing’s requisite pragmatism. Whenever it now appears within University of Leicester communications, the motto now evokes a collective debt to the war fallen, it reminds us of the institution’s inaugural foundation as a symbolic mode of literal memorialisation. The maintenance of this implication, today, is both entirely well-meaning and utterly disingenuous. John 10:10 makes a general appeal to all those who might live on, not a particular appeal to some of those who have fallen. Ut Vitam Habeant, then, is a humanist ethical principle which need not be disparaged as exclusively Christian. But it must not be construed as exclusively or even predominantly a British principle either. Neither then or now. Remembrance should not be a political obligation. And it should not be a unique selling proposition either. The institutional expectation – even the organisational invitation – for the spiritual salvation of the British Monarch is precisely not what Ut Vitam Habeant means. It comes closer to its opposite, in fact. We should remember the fallen not because we are told by others that we should do so but because our inherent capacity to reason might compel us to do so.
And don’t even get me started on Elite but not Elitist.