When University Marketing Suppresses Academic Freedom

Brand management and the truth are not natural allies. It is a point of pride at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor that the Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Academic and Intellectual Freedom Lecture, now in its 31st year, is the oldest such lecture series in the country. The speaker or speakers are chosen by a faculty-governance committee, of which I am a member. This year, we chose Dima Khalidi, the founder and director of Palestine Legal — an organization whose mission is “to bolster the Palestine solidarity movement by challenging efforts to threaten, harass and legally bully activists into silence and inaction.”

The problem: the University of Michigan is not exactly innocent of such efforts, having sanctioned the professor John Cheney-Lippold for refusing to write a letter of recommendation for a student seeking to study in Israel. To no avail, Cheney-Lippold invoked his allegiance to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. One imagines that the same people who organized the successful smear campaign against Cheney-Lippold might well take offense again, because the offense-taking machine is always well-oiled and its switch easily flipped.
The poster advertising the lecture superimposed the lecture’s title — “A New McCarthyism? Academic Freedom and Palestine” — on a black and white backdrop of the Ann Arbor campus. Commissioned by the Faculty Senate Office and designed by the art and design professors Rebekah Modrak and Nick Tobier, in consultation with Khalidi, the poster features graphics visually referencing the advertisement of the 1949 film “The Red Menace” (see Figure 1) — an informed choice, as the professors Chandler Davis, Clement Markert, and Mark Nickerson were suspended from the University of Michigan after refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The lecture title is set in the center of a menacing black blob. On the right, there is useful information, such as the speaker’s name and title, and the lecture’s date, time, and place. All easily legible.

Event poster with the title “A New McCarthyism? Academic Freedom and Palestine”

How does a university advertise a lecture it would rather people not know too much about? The social-media team, consulting neither with the Faculty Senate Office nor the artists, butchered the graphic in their Twitter announcement. First, they cut the Ann Arbor campus in the background, replacing it with an ominous image of skyscrapers (which turned out to be the Toronto-Dominion Centre (see Figure 2)). They kept the blob, but “A New McCarthyism” now appears against one of UM’s two brand colors, a cheerful maize yellow. The lecture’s subtitle — the very text that tells you why you might be interested in attending this lecture — is gone. Also gone: Khalidi’s name and her title. You’ll have to click the link for that.

Event poster with the title “A New McCarthyism?”

Figure 2

When the Faculty Senate Office requested that UM take down the tweet and replace it with one featuring the original artwork. Michigan’s social-media director responds this way:

As I’m sure you can understand, the reach of the main university channels extends far beyond the U-M campus community. In order to best direct attention to the lecture registration, adhere to visual best practices for text on image, optimize for social media sizing, and meet brand standards, the graphic was simplified. This is a process we do regularly when translating content for brand accounts. With this additional context — we’d be happy to remove the content. Thank you for working through this with us.

Event poster with the title “A New McCarthyism?”

Figure 3

They “worked through this with us” by creating a new image, again erasing both the subtitle and the speaker’s name and title. “Visual best practices for text on image” and “brand standards,” it turns out, demand specifically that the word “Palestine” not appear anywhere. Toronto’s skyscrapers have been replaced with an image of late 19th-century Detroit (see Figure 3) — McCarthyism does not merely live elsewhere, it has been relegated to the 19th century. Our best guess is that someone entered “historical campus” in some database, because the image shows Detroit’s Campus Martius Park, a downtown square which is not, in fact, a college campus.

No, we say, you really do need to include the full title of the lecture and Khalidi’s name and title. So they tried yet again. This time, they gave up on architectural features altogether. The graphic is now blandly corporate, featuring a portrait of Khalidi under her name and title in a type so tiny we missed it at first. “The New McCarthyism?” appears now in maize on blue, which seems increasingly appropriate, as, straining credulity, “Academic Freedom and Palestine” is still missing. There is a lot of empty white space where Ann Arbor, Toronto, and Detroit used to be (see Figure 4).

Event poster with the title “A New McCarthyism?”

Figure 4

We insist, being the ornery sort. Version 4 arrives. The subtitle is finally there, in a type one-fourth the size of McCarthy (see Figure 5). We refuse to sign off. An even uglier graphic arrives (see Figure 6). Khalidi’s name remains minuscule, but it’s a triumph of sorts. We have vanquished the social-media office. The image is devoid of aesthetic or historical integrity, the fonts tumble over each other, the white background bleeds into the white Twitter space. No design student would get a passing grade on it. But we made them say “Palestine.”

This exchange took many hours, and it was grimly hilarious. But it’s perhaps not so very funny that for half a day, UM’s brand managers made it their mission to erase the word Palestine from a lecture about the erasure of Palestinian voices and to delete the visual traces of UM’s historical complicity in one of the darkest chapters of U.S. post-war history.

It is not amusing that the New McCarthyism now comes in maize and blue. It is not amusing that a university would show such abysmal disrespect for its own faculty’s work. As Modrak told me, “Graphic art is public scholarship; altering it is akin to changing someone’s book content.”

Event poster with the title “A New McCarthyism? Academic Freedom and Palestine”

Figure 5

Event poster with the title “A New McCarthyism? Academic Freedom and Palestine”

Figure 6

It is not amusing that we incessantly talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion while burying the real thing under a shroud of corporate aesthetics that flatten every idea, every image, every thought.

To be sure, this anti-intellectualism by design is the soft tyranny of branding, not the hard tyranny of censorship. We are not Texas or Florida. Nobody suggested that we disinvite Khalidi. Though it bears noting that our interim President Mary Sue Coleman, who had promised to introduce this year’s speaker, discovered a scheduling conflict once she learned who it was. Don’t say Palestine. Don’t hear Palestine. Thank you for working through this with us.