Don’t wait for the statues to come down to raise up your higher ed. institution’s brand.

Recent events have galvanized an unflinching introspection into who and what is publicly venerated. No rock is being left unturned to reveal the true legacies of those who have streets, schools, libraries and more named after them.

Rebrands and renames are rife as an overdue reckoning takes shape. 

Is your higher ed. institution next?

Schools to sports teams have faced firestorms for leaving celebrated controversial figures, values, or namesakes smouldering. So if you’ve been nervously hoping your institution isn’t next, this is your sign to be proactive (and not end up on the cover of The Globe and Mail for the wrong reasons).

In times of reckoning, failure to do the right thing has swift and sharp consequences — like alienating current and future students, faculty and staff, turning off would-be donors, and losing community support. 

Will you be on the right side of history? 

Weighing what wins: Upholding nostalgia or correcting course? 

The loudest arguments you’ll hear against change — especially significant change like renaming — is that you’re wiping out history, or taking away a positive piece of nostalgia. 

But…tradition, legacy, heritage! It’s always been this way! 

For many in your community (mostly alumni), their alma mater is an aspect of their very identity. Ideally, their time at your school was among the most profoundly formative and positive experiences of their lives. This kind of deep connection and positive association is something all schools foster. So it’s understandable that their first response to the idea of change is to oppose it.

Your boards and senior administration responsible for the viable operation of your institution are likely concerned about causing confusion, offending donors and angering alumni by giving in to what may be considered cancel culture. That’s understandable too.

The thing is, if you’re coming from a place of understanding, and respect that the feelings of those resisting change are valid, you’re actually in the right mindset to be wholly empathetic. That means you’re open to the other side of the argument and to the members of your community whose associations are not positive. Whose associations are, in fact, horrific.

You’re going to need to pick a side. So, what wins: Upholding what makes people feel nostalgic, or correcting the course of your school’s history and ensuring that it truly lives its values?

Even if it’s crystal clear your institution (or an aspect of it) needs to rebrand, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. But sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.

Embrace what your higher ed. institution is meant to do: Lead.

Whether your institution’s differentiator is medicine or music, you have one thing in common with every school: You exist to foster growth and innovation. Therefore, one of your strongest arguments for change is rooted in your school’s moral imperative to be on the right side of history — spearheading change, inspiring and leading others in the pursuit of the truth. 

Even those who oppose change know that’s what research and education are all about. 

Removing a statue, changing a mascot or renaming a building doesn’t wipe out history — it puts that history in context. No one can deny that that’s what your school is there for, to educate people about historical context and what’s happened. 

You have a strong case for change because if your school doesn’t lead the charge to learn from past wrongs and injustices, the fact is, you will appear to be upholding those wrongs and injustices.

Taking the lead on self-analysis and acknowledging (if not correcting) the wrongs of history is a learning institution’s obligation. So too is addressing equity, diversity, inclusion, and indigeneity — that is, if an institution claims to offer a welcoming and inclusive learning environment.

Failure to do these things sends the wrong message to prospective students looking for a safe place to be seen, respected, and valued. To your donors, it inadvertently communicates that you don’t practice what you preach. Finally, it can be detrimental to your image in a broader community that expects you to set the bar. 

Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Of course, it’s messy. Change always is. But look at examining these unjust legacies as an opportunity for your institution to do what it’s called to do: Enlighten and lead the way through education.

How to get your higher ed. institution ready for a rebrand. 

Now that you know what needs to be done, it’s time to do the uncomfortable (but necessary) work.  

First, take a deep dive into your school’s heritage, spaces, symbols, and values. How much do you know about that obscure (long dead) donor for which a corner of your library is named? Do you know what your school’s shield represents?

Many large universities in Canada were established by a Royal Charter, therefore inflecting vestiges of colonialism on symbols like shields and crests. Your institution may very well be one of them, and therefore may be unthinkingly reflecting values not yet examined through the lens of today’s truths. ED. Marketing helped the University of Manitoba evolve its crest and visual identity to reflect the university’s prioritization of Indigenous student success and its commitment to reconciliation, and the outcome has been enthusiastically embraced.

Now is the time to learn what your buildings’ namesakes stood for (or didn’t stand for). And it’s time to dig into what those crests represent. Because if you don’t, someone will. 

Finally, work with your stakeholders on how to meaningfully implement the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action. If you’ve already been working on this, you’re on the right track. 

Change is always hard. But it’s always instrumental to forward progress. Those who resist embracing change, even after hearing why it’s necessary, aren’t the ones who will lead your institution forward. 

As harsh truths come to light, standing for change and progress will only affirm what your institution exists to do — be the change.

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