I was in Dupont Circle a few weeks ago when one of my friends began to giggle and nudged me, directing my attention to a group across the street. I looked them up and down, trying to figure out what I was supposed to find amusing. They appeared to be college freshmen and were all wearing the same t-shirt. I was perplexed–gaggles of freshmen in matching t-shirts aren’t uncommon sights during Welcome Week–what was supposed to be funny? The shirts said “Service Wonk.” Naturally, I thought the shirts were unintentionally dirty (wank?) and gave it a chuckle. At the time I chalked it up to a nonsensical Freshman Service Experience campaign and forgot about it.
Three short weeks later, it has proven itself to be so much more.
Earlier this week AWOL reported that the Wonk campaign, a marketing plan to attract prospective students, will cost American University $675,000. That’s far from the drop in the bucket I had originally thought. It was the front page story on the websites of both AU and The Eagle for almost a week. The “Service Wonk” shirts I first saw have diversified: there are Green Wonks, Athletic Wonks, Greek Wonks–the list goes on. Wonk is unavoidable. It even has a promotional video.
One of the most glaring problems with the campaign is the word itself. The university defines “wonk” by citing urbandictionary.com:
Wonk: Noun – An expert in a field, typically someone who is fairly young and very intelligent.
According to materials provided by Terry Flannery, Executive Director of University Communications and Marketing, the Wonk marketing team considered implications of other definitions. The word is slang for the drug ketamine in the United Kingdom, and meant homosexual in 1940s Australia. Both of these variations can be found at urbandictionary.com.
The copy of Webster’s Dictionary sitting on my bookshelf adds another side to the story. It gives two definitions:
Wonk: n. (Slang) 1, an obsessive student; grind. 2, (Offensive) an unattractive person.
Shouldn’t AU’s hired marketing team, whose slogan is “Intelligent Marketing for Higher Education,” have checked a dictionary?
Then there’s the money. The wonk campaign will cost an estimated $675,000 over two fiscal years. That’s enough to send six students to AU free of charge for four years. Enough to buy every undergraduate student at AU a copy of Webster’s Classic Reference Library Dictionary at $110 each. Enough to adopt 2,700 pandas through the World Wildlife Fund’s most expensive ($250) panda adoption package and give the 2,700 included “Giant Plush Pandas” to disadvantaged DC children. Enough to donate $675,000 to District of Columbia public schools. Enough to pay for 460 students to take a plane trip around the world or to pay for even more students’ round trip study abroad plane tickets. Enough to ease the burdens of many students’ debts and pay off their college loans. I could go on. The list could be its own column. The point is, this cost a substantial amount of university money–money that could have been put to better use.
While railing on the campaign is easy, it is also easy to forget that there were many, many smart well-meaning people that put it together and still defend it wholeheartedly. People that truly believe that it was the right thing to do with $675,000 and that it will work. Watching the promotional video is difficult. Over and over, Wonk’s creators tell the camera about their earnest hard work over the past two years. They talk about the planning involved and the results they hope their idea will bring. It is as though they have invented a flying car. Yet somehow the result of all this hard work is simply, “Wonk.”
The promotional video quotes Sonya Grier, marketing professor in the Kogod School of Business. She says, “Universities are businesses that operate in increasingly competitive global markets.” Herein lies the campaign’s biggest misunderstanding. A university is an institute of higher education, not a fast food chain. A good university should sell itself on the basis of intelligent students, great professors, and outstanding learning environments, not its name recognition or four-letter catchphrase. AU is not hurting for applicants and I’m skeptical whether the Wonk campaign will improve the quality of the school’s applicant pool.
Despite myriad groaning around campus, it appears that wonk is here to stay, with an estimated $350,000 still to be spent in this fiscal year and seemingly no plans to stop anytime soon. In the words of the campaign’s promotional video, “Wonk? Really?”