Hard to miss after three weeks away from campus is the great expanse of sky newly unobstructed after the removal of a number of trees from the perimeter of the library. Soon to replace them and presently queued along the north face of the building is a series of palm trees, shipped in from wherever the palm tree farm is — paradise, manufactured and imported. How much has each of these wonderfully phallic pieces of decorative scenery cost the university? Probably not much, but the question is worth begging.
For those who read the Nexus last week, you’ll know that the UC Office of the President recently decided to retract the tasteless “logo” they had attempted to impose on the University, its faculty, staff and students. While much can be said about the aesthetics of the logo (its tackiness was apparent, in my opinion, for all to see) attacking it for its beauty is questionable at best. Beauty is a subjective notion, after all. Rather, what we must recognize in light of both the logo and the palm trees is the increasing commoditization of our university.
In the video produced to introduce the logo, the thing itself was imposed upon a series of consumer items: a tote bag, a pair of flip flops, a coffee mug. And while a good number of us might in adulthood take our morning coffee from a cup bearing some reference to our alma mater, the idea behind the promotional video, let’s call it a commercial, equates an education at the University of California with a consumer item, something to be bought, worn around, shown off amongst our peers and then discarded at some point once its use value has dried up, holding not inherent value other than as a means to furthering ourselves in the social world, or to some other end.
The beautification that ours and other UC campuses currently experience (consider the renovations done to Berkeley’s football stadium, far more expensive than a few trees) represents a consistent theme of commoditization, a form of marketing for the University that, while it might attract more grant money, out-of-state students (worth more than Californians) and distinguished faculty, tends to reduce the University itself to the level of a consumer item, holding no permanence or value of its own. Just as the coffee mug sits nicely in the hand of a pretty blonde woman who smiles at the person watching the video, I’d venture to guess that the palm trees, once they’ve assimilated well enough into the campus scenery, might appear on the website, or as letterhead sent out to perspective students and faculty, a selling point on the campus tour, or whatever.
The point here is not that university campuses should be dreary, lifeless and void of beauty. But while the University struggles in so many ways, while undergraduates and their parents are virtually extorted, while graduate students struggle to find funding and remain poorly compensated for all the work they do, while professors salaries remain low and endowments (particularly in the social sciences) shrink, while classrooms lack chalk and students cannot cheaply access their books, the University damns itself by investing in its outward appearance, logos, football stadiums and mass produced trees. These things are nothing but a façade and the attention given to them detracts from what the University might otherwise be. The true value of this or any university is found in the work done, the communities built and the fostering of civic engagement. This is a place of learning, of developing ideas, establishing friendships, understanding and bettering the world, and above all, it is an end in and of itself, not a fucking postcard.
Michael Dean asked for tuition money for Christmas and got a palm tree shoved down his chimney instead. Thanks, Santa.