Dumbing down: Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings

Safe Spaces. Trigger Warnings. I think I have heard the last straw in the downfall of the US higher education system. The University of Chicago has officially declared that having trigger warnings and providing safe spaces is not mandatory for its faculty.

safe spaces
Better run, kids, to your safe spaces! Here comes an opposing view!

For those of you thinking this is a blog about self-defense and campus shooting alerts — think again. It’s about providing a pre-warning that the faculty member is going to discuss a controversial issue that might be deemed offensive by some students. A safe place is a designated refuge for students to go to so they don’t have to hear it. (In the case of Brown University, an Ivy League school, safe spaces include pillows and Play-Doh.)

How is that for open discourse?

This is an outrage for those of us who care about a liberal (not in the political sense) education in our universities and colleges. When I attended Temple University in the 70s, I was exposed to a myriad of ideas and views. Many were different from my own. Some even challenged me to think deeply about my own positions and beliefs. All of them combined to provide me with an education based upon intellectual vigor and debate. What has happened now that we feel the need to protect the students from such debate? Why is it not mandatory to expose students hungry for knowledge (which is vastly different from hunger for information) to points of view and challenges to their own status quo?

In a word, insecurity.

Safe spaces will just keep our youth from learning and growing.

If you hold a deep-set belief in the correctness of something, you welcome challenges to that very thinking. That’s how you grow. Hopefully, your belief or position has been groomed on a varied exposure of opposing views and an intellectual and emotional willingness to challenge what might even be the foundations of your hierarchy of beliefs.

I hear shouts in the world today to shun political correctness. But that doesn’t seem to be really the case. I guess we simply want and welcome new voices when we fundamentally agree with them.

If the university environment is a conflict free zone, where are those who attend higher education supposed to be exposed to differences? How many times in our world history have minority views, no matter how challenging to the current orthodoxy, become the new normal? Should those seeking to gain knowledge be shielded completely from the findings of Galileo? Is the Earth still the center of the Universe?

Wake up. Our strength as a civilization is in challenging each other and holding rigorous and heartfelt debate. Anything less is coddling our offspring and dooming our civilization to a future in the dark ages.

For those who support safe places, I warn you to provide them in your own home later this month. When the Presidential debates are aired, there’s bound to be an opposing view or two. Better get the pillows and Play-Doh ready.

The Pat Summitt Brand

The Brand of Pat Summitt

Pat SummittPat Summitt knew, but you might not know, that many many years ago I owned a scouting service for Division 1 NCAA basketball programs. Women’s Division 1 NCAA basketball programs.

I was privileged to meet and get to know many of the basketball coaches of the day in a sport just beginning to feel its oats with Title 9 funding.

This was so many years ago that Pat Summitt had yet to win her first NCAA title. In my second year in business, that all changed and Pat’s Lady Vols cut down the nets. I was there for that game.

I will leave the tributes to others and there will be many well deserved accolades. She was as gracious in private as she was tenacious in coaching (and as a player years before). I don’t claim to have known her well but just meeting with Coach and spending a short time with her was an unforgettable moment.

She was legendary before she was at the pinnacle of her sport and EVERYONE knew it was just a matter of time before Pat’s teams dominated her sport. I know now why that was. It was the Pat Summitt brand.

Joining the Vols

To become part of that brand, to have the Tennessee Lady Vols logo on your jersey MEANT you were a relenteless and hard as nails competitor who worked tirelessly to be the best you could be.

Pat Summitt Tennessee LogoPlayers improved and grew under Coach Summitt’s tutelage. But she also recruited and won better athletes. The good ones wanted to be part of that brand. No matter how great they were in high school, they believed they were going to a special place and were going to be coached by greatness. The brand was a reflection of Pat Summitt.

What did that mean to the athletes? Everything.

Why the Pat Summitt brand was so powerful

Pat SummittThe basketball court was a microcosm of the world of Pat Summitt. She believed in the transformative power of PRESSURE. There was the pressure to become better. There was the pressure to eliminate mistakes. There was the pressure to be a complete human being and there was the legendary pressure of her man-to-man defense.

Everyone was subjected to her pressure. Especially the poor NCAA victims of her teams rise to greatness.

Pat Summitt was indeed a brand with a capital B. It meant identifying yourself as a player with that brand. It was your identity and it was lived with great dignity and charm by the woman who created it. She did not invent it.. Its just who she was.

Rest in peace Pat Summitt. You are missed.

John Wooden’s Wisdom

John Wooden was a marketing genius

The UCLA Under Armour deal is hypocritical

UCLA and Under Armour just announced a shoe and apparel deal worth about $280 million over the next 15 years. The deal covers all sports at UCLA and is the largest shoe deal in the history of the NCAA, eclipsing last year’s $252 million deal between Nike and Ohio State.

The UCLA Under Armour deal raises this truth: colleges and universities continue to make money on the backs of student athletes who play and attend school but receive nothing.

Looking at the UCLA Under Armour more closely.

Sure, people will argue that student athletes receive a free education but even that is misleading. Did you know that the NCAA only has six so-called head count scholarships? Men’s football and basketball with 85 and 13 scholarships respectively and women’s basketball, tennis, gymnastics and volleyball (15, 8, 12, and 12, respectively) are the only ones on that list.

UCLA Under Armour
The UCLA Under Armour deal exposes the hypocrisy of the NCAA.

In these sports, the scholarships are full-ride scholarships, although they never cover the total cost of attendance. In all other sports, NCAA only allows equivalency scholarships which means the value of a full ride can be split up among a number of players.

So, you have a whole host of student athletes that are not getting full ride scholarships yet are required to wear Under Armour gear. Because of the UCLA Under Armour deal, they are required to be good ambassadors for the Under Armour brand even though they are not even being compensated – not even with a full scholarship in many cases.

The school is making money on the deal at the expense of the student-athlete.

The NCAA brand has failed in its brand mission and has failed to live up to its core values. It has made a whole string of decisions that were meant to be for the student-athlete but only make the universities more money, making the large programs larger and the smaller programs less competitive.

If it’s all about the money, NCAA, then pay the athletes. If it’s about maintaining what you purportedly say you believe, then don’t let universities profit on the backs of their student-athletes.

The SEC Brand is more important than team excellence

No one manages its brand better than the SEC. How great is that SEC brand? Better than the real greatness of any of its member football teams.

SEC Brand logoAs brand guy, I give keynote speeches on what corporations can learn from the SEC brand in terms of brand management. The SEC brand manages media reports, sport commentary, game day analysts and the supposed independent polls that make up the college football rankings. They manage the message and the message is BIGGER than the talent in the league.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the teams are bad. Far from it. They are a good football conference made up of very good football teams who manage the SEC brand’s polish by trying very hard not to give the outside world any means to judge the actual talent level of the individual teams. They have succeeded in this. They do this by playing virtually no one of substance from outside of their own co-conspirators.

Before I get into the examples of the conference’s brand management for this year, I want to point out that last year the vast superiority of all the SEC teams found a rough landing in the post-season bowl games. The ongoing claim of the inherent mediocrity of everyone (except SEC teams) really showed its ugly side in post season.

SEC brand-Logos
The 14 SEC brand members are a tight club

In a recap of last year’s SEC performance, Alabama lost to Ohio State in the first round of the National Championship series. Ole Miss was spanked by TCU in the Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl. Mississippi State (Number 1 in the polls for a bit) was handily beaten by Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Notre Dame beat LSU 31-28 and Auburn lost to Wisconsin. South Carolina was one of the few bright spots in the postseason by beating Miami (whose current coach is on the hot seat) 24-21. Arkansas beat a 6-6 Texas team 31-7. Missouri beat Minnesota, Georgia beat Louisville, Tennessee beat Iowa and Florida beat ECU. So in the final tally last year the SEC brand was 6-5. Not a bad record but by no means a dominating performance by a conference with that much hype. Why such a letdown? Does such a poor finish matter?

SEC brand Bama LogoThe SEC brand and Alabama

Nope. Not a jot. Let’s look at Alabama this year and see exactly what is going on. Alabama was ranked third in preseason polls. It moved up to second with a 35-17 win over Wisconsin (3-2 at this writing with no wins over any major program). The Crimson Tide remained in that spot until it was defeated and nearly spanked at home by Ole Miss 37-43 (Ole Miss another SEC brand school and my sister’s passion). So what happened to Alabama with that loss? Alabama dropped to 12th and Ole Miss rolled up to 3rd. After all, one team beat another SEC team and the other team lost to an SEC team. Neither scenario should matter in the eye of an SEC fan.Ole Mis Script SEC brand

This past weekend, Alabama (an underdog for the first time in years) beat an undefeated SEC Georgia team. It had major repercussions in the national rankings because it was an SEC game. I am not even going to get into the shenanigans in the polls after The Gators beat the Rebels last week. Good grief.

This is where the SEC brand power diverges from the reality of the actual team performance. Georgia was favored and ranked SEC BRAND and brand awareness8thnationaly. Yet, when you look at the Georgia schedule, the Bulldogs have no major wins under their belt—unless you consider any win against any SEC team a signature win (I guess many do). Georgia beat lowly South Carolina and a 2-3 Vanderbilt team. The rest of its wins came against schools that were scheduled as gimmees. Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Monroe (who also played Alabama). Louisiana Monroe, by the way, is like the SEC version of the Harlem Globetrotters’ arch rivals, the Washington Generals. You play them to ensure a win. They play you for the money. After this Alabama win, the ‘Bama schedule toughens up until the matchup with their arch rivals Charleston Southern on November 21.

SEC brand value
Brand value does not have to be true to be powerful

Why the SEC Brand and not SEC football?

So why is this about brand and not about reality? I am sure this blog will excite all sorts of emotional reactions from SEC fans. It’s hard to dispassionately argue with the patsy scheduling and the lack of a desire to measure the conference mettle against quality non-conference foes. But considering the brand blindness exhibited by the fans, I don’t blame them (the SEC brand managers). Why risk upsetting the brand battlewagon by stretching into no-win scenarios like playing a Pac 12, ACC or, dare I say, the AAC powerhouses? Ole Miss might have made a major mistake in scheduling Memphis, habitually a gimmee, but an undefeated squad this year. I’m sure Memphis is not up to SEC standards because it is not in the SEC.

By playing only each other, the mystique of the SEC conference remains intact and no one will ever fault them for losing to other SEC conference teams. All true SEC fans know that every slot of the top 14 rankings rightly belongs to the SEC conference teams.

brand context and the SEC Brand
Emotional connections define brand power

The power of a brand is always seen in emotional attachments that have very little, if anything, to do with product performance or side-by-side comparisons. Adherents will defend a brand choice with virulent emotional defense because, when the brand is attacked, they feel as if they have been personally affronted. I always count on this power of retention in creating brands and the SEC is chock full of such devotees. At the end of the day, the brand is not about the schools or the conference. Like all successful brands, it has transcended all that and the brand is about them, the fan. This is not an accident.

If you are an SEC fan and you see this blog as an attack on you… You prove my point. This is not an attack on the SEC teams. They play VERY good football. It’s just a brand reality that can be said of many other schools and conferences. What other football teams and conferences envy is not the caliber of the athletes or the fame of the coaches. They envy the SEC brand and the emotional connection that the SEC brand has created with fans who see no correlation between the reality of a 6-5 finish last year and their own personal recollection of the season. (Read our market study on University Brands and college branding here)

The brand failure of the middle class

Stanford University has just announced that families of students accepted at this great center of learning with an annual income below $120,000 per year no longer has to pay tuition. Great news for Stanford hopefuls, and it seems that Harvard, Princeton and Yale have similar programs. But I can’t help but think how sad this is for the middle class.

I’m old enough to remember when a six-figure income was a proud indication of real achievement. It meant that you had entered into an elite income bracket. I guess today, it means you are needy.

Your economic standing may not be what you think.
Your economic standing may not be what you think.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I applaud any effort at making higher education more affordable. (I also wish secondary education was actually effective education rather than a social club with few demands and even fewer achievements.) But I bet it comes as a surprise to families earning 120K that they have moved to a lower class than they believed they had attained.

I remember reading just last week an article that claimed most earning families overestimated their pecking order when it came to understanding their place in the sociopolitical grid.

This overstatement of earning position is good for government because it diminishes economic unrest. The idea here is that it may be a struggle to pay bills and save for the future but, if you believe you have made it, your situation is simply easier to take.

I learned last week that 80% of full-time workers in fast food qualify for government aid of some type. Why is this fact related to the first point I made? Because it demonstrates how disconnected we are from economic reality.

Think about this. Let’s say you work 40 hours a week at McDonald’s and are the main earner in your family. You qualify for food stamps and the ACA (Affordable Care Act, better known as Obama care). But the political backlash is enormous when there is a legislative movement to raise minimum wages so that full-time workers can earn a respectable wage. McDonald’s complains that a higher minimum wage will hurt business because it would need to raise prices.

But the reality is that we, the tax paying public, are subsidizing Micky Ds by providing benefits to its full-time workers. It seems that the middle class is more willing to subsidize the fast food employee with government (tax paid benefits) then it is to demand McDonald’s carry its share of the burden. This proves once again how out of touch Americans are with their own economic situation and how indifferent we are to the realities of economics.

Personally, I would rather see the corporation lower its earnings paid to shareholders than to have my tax dollars subsidize its profits. But, look, that’s just me. I am obviously out of touch with the income stratifications.