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Posted at 9:48 PM ET, 10/ 7/2010

Thumbs down for the AU 'Wonks'

By editors

By Evan Van Tassell
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Regarding the Sept. 24 front-page article “American University, now home to the ‘American wonk’ ”: Colleges’ self-prescribed labels often end up misleading prospective students, and universities should stop trying to label their students with generalized brands.

“You can never become something you’re not,” a spokesman for a branding agency said. And yet American University seems to be trying anyway, because they’re endorsing a new “wonk” moniker that many of their students don’t agree with.
The university is forcing this label on itself. The problem is that prospective students who don’t associate with a college’s brand will immediately assume that the school isn’t right for them, while the ones who do will wrongly expect that the brand applies to all current students. The result is an incoming class that is bound for disappointment, because the school can’t live up to what the labels promise.

In reality, universities such as American use these labels to mold the future student bodies that they want, not to represent current ones. This kind of artificial label-making will only create dissatisfied students. The universities must learn that forced brands are false ones.

My advice? Let the labels create themselves.

By editors  | October 7, 2010; 9:48 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic  
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The AU Wonk campaign is smart, effective, and correctly describes the AU student in my opinion. Why wouldn't a student want to be an expert in something? Isn't that why they're going to college in the first place? I employ a lot of "wonks"; that is who I need working for me. Colleges need to brand themselves in this day and age or they will be left behind. Bravo AU!

Posted by: OmnipotentOne1 | October 8, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

The label for AU is already well-established: “Immature kids who couldn’t get into a first- or second-tier school, but whose parents have more money than they know what to do with.”

Posted by: SydneyP | October 8, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, SyndeyP, for making the case for marketing so succinctly. Your dated notion of American University is one of the reasons that institutions engage in marketing.

AU is one of the top 100 universities in the nation. Its incoming first year students are consistently among the best in the Greater Washington area by all the traditional measures, the retention rate is 91% and the National Survey of Student Engagement shows that AU's student experience, both in and out of class, is among the best in the nation for engagement and powerful learning experiences like study abroad and internships. Not only are AU students smart, politically active and engaged, they are from very diverse backgrounds. Newsweek just named AU one of the top ten most diverse U.S. intitutions, with students coming from all over the world. Nearly one in every six AU students is a Pell Grant recipient.

Wonk isn't a a label to slap on students, it describes the essence of the place. AU faculty, students and alumni are passionate about using their knowledge to create change on the most sigificant issues facing our world. In short, the place is teeming with wonks. And since "wonk" is just know spelled backwards, it suits this institution of higher education particularly well.

I hope the irony is not lost on anyone that on the top of this very page, an advertisement for University of Maryland's faculty, using "Fear the Turtle" is flashing away.

Marketing is a reasonable way for universities to engage and motivate those who are attracted to their distinctive qualities. The front page story in the Post was a source of great pride for many. In addition, AU's branding campaign is already proving it is a powerful way to get folks take a closer look at an institution they didn't know or thought they knew.

Posted by: marketingwonk | October 8, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

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