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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Rethinking branding in higher education : updating institutional logos in response to anti-racist activism Xu, Zhenyang


Although re/branding work has been understood by many higher education institutions as a measure to respond to challenges of reductions of public funding and increased national and global competition among universities, some Western universities also employed branding work as a public relations strategy. In this study, I specifically look at how two prestigious higher education institutions, Harvard Law School and Imperial College London, updated their institutional logos to respond to internal and/or external pressure to address racism. Changing institutional logos is just one case in the larger contexts of branding as symbolic politics; other examples include renaming a faculty, removing a statue on campus, and so forth. By arguing that updating institutional logos is a non-performative technique to address racism but a performative action for branding, this study asks: how did Harvard Law School and Imperial College explain the reasons for updating their institutional logos; how was the language of anti-racism, diversity and inclusion used in the rebranding process; to what extent do they acknowledge their colonial and racist past and present; and what were the debates and tensions around the decision of updating the institutional logos? Methodologically, this research is a qualitative study and I draw on Critical Discourse Analysis to interpret unequal power relations embedded in discourse from university leaders and students. I primarily collected data including statements and announcements made by university leaders and faculty, committee reports, relevant quotes reported in news articles, social media pages launched by student activists, and petitions written by students. My findings suggest that updating institutional logos can be a non-performative action that fails to lead to substantive institutional changes to address racism and become more inclusive. I also noted that as removing controversial logos might serve the need of improving institutional brands, the rhetoric of change thus reflects an interest convergence.

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