When University Marketing Suppresses Academic FreedomRoundup
tags: Palestine, academic freedom, University of Michigan
Silke-Maria Weineck is a professor of German and comparative literature at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
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.
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.