“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog


Components of large public sector organisations usually have dull-but-explanatory names for their sub-units: the Department of X, the Y Office. Sometimes, though, particular parts have a slicker sub-brand. This is typical of estates and hospitality units; names such as Kent Hospitality, Edinburgh First and ConferenceHertfordshire (complete with go-faster-CamelCaps).

Presumably the motivation for these is so that, when the need arises, they can elide away the fact that they are part of some scummy university and charge as if they were some rapacious private company. An external customer might expect to benefit from the public subsidy afforded to universities if booking something from the Accommodation Department of the University of Rummidge; the slickly-branded RummConf can get away with a much slicker deal.

Yet, such organisations serve two audiences—always a tricksy proposition. Many people within the organisation fail to understand that these branded sub-units are actually a part of the organisation. Instead, the impression is that that part of the organisation has been hived off to a private profit-making organisation. As such, problems evoke a much stronger negative response from internal clients, who see the sub-unit as some incompetent external body obsessed with profit and completely un-obsessed with offering a service.

Within universities, academic units are much more uniformly branded. Some have a befuddling mixture of Schools, Institutes, Centres and Departments all describing academic units of roughly the same level of granularity, but this has mostly been ironed out. However, in a dynamic organisation, this cannot hold for long: as an example, the University of Edinburgh only a few years ago adopted a clear “Colleges and Schools” nomenclature, only for the merger with Edinburgh College of Art to break the scheme by having a School-level unit called a College.

This example illustrates another feature of the naming of academic units. Typically, when there is a uniformisation of names, a few units will be allowed to break the model: a “Business School”, “Law School” or “College of Art”. The argument here is always a historical/sector uniformity one: everywhere else is called a “Business School”, we’d look absurdly pedantic to call ourselves a “School of Business”. This is reasonable, but can sometimes lead to prospective students distinguishing the differently-named unit in a negative way rather than a positive one: I’ve certainly overheard students on open days asking if the business school was a “proper part of the University”.

Interestingly, an argument for creating an off-model name based on some more future-focused proposition wouldn’t fly. Proposing to be the first “e-School” in the world, or whatever trendyism applied at the time, wouldn’t go anywhere. Perhaps this is a good thing—it probably saves us from the equivalent of naff individual-level titles like “Imagination Engineer”.

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