Corporate Vandalism: The University of Otago and that Hideous Logo
The University of Otago – the oldest university in New Zealand – towers over my home city of Dunedin. When classes are on, something like a fifth of Dunedin’s population are university students. It is also the largest employer in the South Island. To say that this is a locally important institution, in a social, cultural, and economic sense, would be an understatement. Dunedin has spent a good 140 years in genteel decline vis-a-vis the rest of New Zealand, but the University? That remains its last bastion of relevancy, and one that (justifiably) has a sound international reputation.
I mention this because the University of Otago has decided to investigate changing its logo from this:
I am not a happy camper.
I think the proposed new logo is profoundly ugly, and looks for all the world like something you would expect from a privatised energy company. Which might well be the point. The University of Otago might be a public institution, but no-one ought to be under any illusion that this is an innocent group of affable scholars. This is a corporate behemoth, complete with byzantine administration and an interest in maximising academic “output” in order to get government funding. “Degree factory” goes the famous accusation against the New Zealand universities (since the 1990s), and, well, it is hardly an unfair accusation.
The old logo? There is nothing wrong with it. The University’s Coat of Arms has a stylised representation of the Southern Cross, the Scottish saltire, and the blue-and-gold of the Otago Province. Central to the device is a book, and the motto Sapere Aude, Dare to Be Wise. This is an excellent summation of what the University of Otago is, and the culture from whence it sprang. Dunedin was famously settled by Scots in 1848, and the city still bears many, many connections to Scotland – the very establishment of the University in 1869, amid the (temporary) financial windfall of the Otago gold rush, reflects the premium placed on education via the legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment. Alongside the Coat of Arms goes the University’s name, in both English and Maori.
Really, there should not have been an issue, so far as this represents the University of Otago.
Alas, it is 2023, and that means corporate nuttery knows no bounds – even when said corporate is as venerable a public institution as the University of Otago.
As per the Otago Daily Times, the consultation alone on this amounts to $126,000:
As per the campus magazine, Critic, the total cost of the exercise amounts to $670,000:
It really reminds me of nothing so much as the vanity flag referenda of 2015-2016, where the then Prime Minister tried spending untold amounts of money trying to change New Zealand’s flag into a glorified beach towel. But really, I can only think of those hundreds of thousands of dollars that might have gone on scholarships or academic funding. A bloody corporate waste, and a testament to the poison of neoliberalism.
But the plot thickens.
You see, while this is indeed a bloody corporate waste, our beloved University is dressing it up as a matter of rebranding. Specifically, it wishes to make itself a “Te Tiriti-led institution” (I might suggest that the Treaty was between the Crown and Maori, and the University is not the Crown, but that is a can of worms I really do not want to touch). The image that so resembles a privatised energy company? That’s really an invented symbol:
Our proposed new tohu, or symbol, is a representation of the Ōtākou channel, in the Otago Harbour, which brings water, kai and life to and from our region – just as the University brings and shares knowledge across Aotearoa. This symbol would replace the existing University coat of arms in many situations, although we would retain the coat of arms for use in ceremonial settings such as graduation events.*
Frankly, if you have to explain contrived symbolism in such a device… the device fails. I would never in a million years have guessed that particular symbolism had it not been laid out explicitly. And I suspect the vast majority of people looking at the device would be similarly puzzled. If I were even harsher, I might suggest that it looks like a bunch of bananas being arranged into a letter formation.
*The Vice-Chancellor of the University has sent out the following email to all enrolled university students:
Kia ora koutou,
Today we are launching Tuakiritaka – a conversation about our visual identity and how we reflect our shared vision and direction in our branding.
For a number of years, we have been reflecting and considering our future, and we have recently unveiled our new strategic direction, Vision 2040. We have challenged ourselves to be a Te Tiriti-led University by 2040, with a new emphasis on transforming student learning, social accountability, and celebrating the unique parts of being the University of Otago.
We are now asking: does our current visual identity reflect where we are headed, and who we want to be?
Along with myself and the University Council, senior leadership and our external engagement team have been working on a project we have called Tuakiritaka (identity) which we are unveiling today for your feedback.
It includes a new Māori name and tohu (symbol), which have been created in collaboration with mana whenua.
While we remain the University of Otago, we are proposing our current Māori name (Te Whare Wānanga o Otāgo) is replaced by Ōtākou Whakaihu Waka – a metaphor meaning A Place of Many Firsts.
Our proposed new tohu, or symbol, is a representation of the Ōtākou channel, in the Otago Harbour, which brings water, kai and life to and from our region – just as the University brings and shares knowledge across Aotearoa. This symbol would replace the existing University coat of arms in many situations, although we would retain the coat of arms for use in ceremonial settings such as graduation events.
We invite you to learn more about this proposal, and to take part in our conversation.
Find out more
- Visit our website to see the proposal
- OUSA will be hosting a student forum on this topic next week. Details will follow.
Take part in our survey
- Tomorrow (Thursday, 16 March) you will be sent an email inviting you to take part in a survey to share your feedback. The email will come from firstname.lastname@example.org, so please keep an eye out for it (your email server may decide it is spam).
We would like to acknowledge that this proposal is a bold change for the University. In choosing to consider this path, we have reflected our proud history full of transformation, of daring, of choosing to be an institution which prizes education and community, and of doing the right thing rather than the easy thing.
We want to be a New Zealand university which welcomes all people and works together to help them succeed. We want to reflect modern Aotearoa New Zealand and continue to lead at the forefront of our nation’s progress. And we want a visual identity which speaks to our unique and special place in the world.
Professor David Murdoch
The truly fascinating thing is the way in which an underlying corporate agenda can be painted over via an appeal to cultural awareness. This is an email framed in the context of a particular ideology – and uses its paint-job as a shield against criticism. No doubt plenty of the criticism of the change will indeed be Culture War nonsense… but that in itself was the intent. The promoters of the change get to portray themselves as heroic fighters against elderly Pakeha racists (or something). It’s about Good versus Evil before we’ve even begun the discussion.
I myself could not care less about the Maori name of the institution, nor about the usage of the Maori language generally. I am simply not bothered by such things. But I am bothered by the godawful choice of University symbol… and that isn’t me engaging in Culture War. That’s just me having the barest semblance of taste.
“We would like to acknowledge…” is the phrase to use when you’re writing about someone else’s decision. It is exquisitely weird coming from the guy in charge.
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If it’s any consolation, I work at a public university in the US where the underlying corporate machinations are painfully obvious. The administration has a fixation with the “metrics” that determine government funding, but hardly anyone ever questions where that funding goes—no doubt to the endless construction projects,* rather than, say, giving proper jobs to all the adjuncts they rely on (myself included).
*New stadium! I am still sore about the nature preserve being mutilated to make room for Yet Another Sports Facility.
New office building! Because they won’t let employees work remotely even though that functioned fine during the quarantine.
New student housing! They force students to stay overnight during orientation even though we are mostly a commuter campus, no doubt to seduce bright-eyed 18-year-olds into paying through the nose for the sleek, brand-new dorms.
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