Commodification of the sacred in campus landscapes

Kind of amazed to read this article, “The Power of Place on Campus,” by one Earl Broussard, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (temp link). Striking because it is so obviously a further step in the marketization of every aspect of campus life. The sacred is invoked as a new fund-raising activity. Is this what happens when anthropologists decide to become consultants to college administrators? Broussard writes:

Colleges and universities should never underestimate the power of special, transformational, and even sacred spaces on their campuses… Universities are products of history and tradition. Not only are they institutions of scholarly learning, but they also are sites of memory and meaning, with cultural spaces that have played host to decades or even centuries of ritual.

…Such transformational places with unique emotional resonance have an almost sacred nature. The word “religious” comes from the Latin verb religare, meaning to bind or reconnect. Thus, anything that reconnects us is, inherently, a deeply personal or spiritual experience that has great meaning — and the university campus is ripe with opportunities for people to reconnect.

…Elite universities understand the importance of branding in creating long-lasting loyalty among students, and they use very specific and often-repeated images in such efforts… such imagery typically has very little to do with dormitories, classrooms, libraries, or students working late into the night. Most images focus on the campus as a landscape, with views of special buildings, students walking or lounging on an open green, and, of course, football players or bands performing on the stadium’s holy ground.

So the sacred spaces on campus are something to be branded. Something to be created as a spectacular image that will produce “unique emotional resonance,” that will give us a “deeply personal or spiritual experience that has great meaning.” This Orwellian language deserves, I think, to be stood on its head: “unique” here really means “totally generic,” and “deeply personal” amounts to “totally determined by cunning advertisers.” For there is after all nothing personal in a pre-scripted contact with the sacred, except through the medium of delusion.

Sacred space in this discourse basically serves two instrumental ends: to create “great meaning” and to increase the university’s bottom line by stimulating alumni donations. Broussard continues:

Alumni of those institutions and others whose campuses have transformational and sacred spaces return to a wealth of traditions and reconnect with their alma mater, which is integral to giving back to their respective schools. Students who attend commuter institutions are not as likely to form the same kinds of emotional attachments, and as a result such institutions miss out on fund-raising and other opportunities associated with having a robust, dedicated, and committed alumni base.

… Once these places have been identified, it is essential to reinforce their function and develop their storylines. What is the history of the site? What meaning does it have? Tell that story by using signage, seating, plantings, art, and paving — elements that support but do not destroy the place’s uniqueness. This offers a great opportunity for fund-raising programs: Storytelling becomes a cultural-support system and should be treasured and nurtured by all parties.

Here we have the new culturalist advertising: it’s slicked up with a rusty anthropological language of meaning and ritual, as if ’60s Victor Turner-esque anthropology had provided a new marketing jargon for the early 21st century. Broussard is of course the president of a landscape consulting and architecture firm, so the article seems to amount essentially to a piece of free advertising for his service, courtesy of the Chronicle of Higher Ed. I hate to talk about the “commodification of higher education,” since the very phrase seems to embody a political bias that precludes rather than enables further analysis, but sometimes there are cases, like these, that seem to fit the category too well to give it up.