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Local Knowledge and Universal Goals

My wife works in marketing and external relations at The Graduate School here at the University of North Dakota, and we regularly discuss the ways that universities sell themselves both to a local and global community.  This happens to coincide with some of my own research interests which explore the tension between institutions with universalizing aspirations (the emperor or, better still, the church) and local practices and traditions. A local saint for example represents a hyper local manifestation of the power of the universal church.  For a university, a local class or tradition is the manifestation of global expectations of what a "university" education means.  Schools have always sought to maintain an identity that made them both access to longstanding "stakeholders" and, at the same time, appealing to people who will only acquire familiarity with the place and its traditions when they arrive there.

With the expansion of online and distance teaching the relationship between local (and spatial) sense of community and the wider world becomes even more attenuated.  A recent group of University of Phoenix commercials, for example, students show students in the most generic of locations (non-spaces, in fact) airports, on trains, at home, or in commuter traffic rather than surrounded by iconic buildings (the intensely local and ubiquitous "old main"), the stadium or other campus scenes.

All this is a long introduction of a billboard that I walk by almost every day on my way home:

PARKULocalKnowledge.jpg

The billboard advertises Park University, which has a "campus" at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.  From what I can gather Park has an agreement with the Air Force to provide college courses on base which they also open to the wider community.  Other than Park being competition for local tuition dollars, I don't know of anything wrong with them and they certainly do not have the reputation of a for-profit university like the University of Phoenix. In fact, I am pretty sure that Park is non-profit university.

Back to local knowledge, Park clearly endeavored to show its "local" nature by featuring in a prominent way what would appear to be a local phone number on its billboard.  The number looks local because it does not have an area code or the dreaded 1-800 in front of it (which every American knows to be the area code for "outsourced to India").  Unfortunately, local numbers here in the Grand Cities (like other major metropolitan areas (e.g. New York City)) always feature an area code.  Since we are on the North Dakota – Minnesota border local numbers typically are typically proceeded by a 701 or 218 area code.  A "local" will almost always starts their number with their area code.

Non-local universities are not a particularly jarring feature of the American higher education landscape these days, they only become jarring when they try to be local and fail.

UPDATE: By the way, I corresponded a bit with the Park University folks and one of them kindly pointed out that John Gillette of our Gillette Hall (and widely regarded as one of the founders of rural sociology) was a Park University graduate in 1895.

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Categories: Academia
  1. BrianB
    November 29, 2010 at 11:32 am | #1

    What a coincidence. I just noticed that billboard for the first time this morning, and also took a moment afterward to consider the marketing involved. I got caught up contemplating the temporal question of how a woman is visualized in a given time period and whether this particular image was meant to represent the modern, education-seeking female.
    Building on your own observations, is this a good sign for Grand Forks’ vitality that outside enterprises see us as a market valuable enough to invest? Is it resultant of North Dakota’s status as a state that has weathered the economic storm?

  2. Kostis Kourelis
    November 29, 2010 at 10:50 pm | #2

    Fabulous ruminations and documentation of ephemera.

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