This New York Times article
about Southern universities downplaying their cultural roots in order to appeal to a wider audience focuses mainly on Sewanee, but it includes quotes from both Chancellor Gee and Bruce Dobie. Also, it is a topic about which I am very interested, coming from the North but going to school in the South.
My entire family is from the South, but I grew up in Chicago and identify more with the urban Yankee culture than I do the Southern way of life. But at the same time, my ancestors fought on the side of the Confederacy and I have no problem with that. Depending on how I feel, I sometimes favor the removal of the word "Confederate" from Vanderbilt's Confederate Memorial Hall, and other times I think it's a stupid debate and the building should be left alone. I'm conflicted on the issue.
However, there is one thing on which I can comment:
Some alumni were also angered by a report commissioned by the university last year by a marketing firm from Chicago that said that the word "South" often had negative connotations for students around the country; the weaker the connection between the South and the university's name, the better, the consultants said.
This, sadly, is true. Since moving to Tennessee, I have been the butt of more jokes among my Northern friends than ever before. There are a lot of cousin-dating jokes, chewing tobacco jokes, even weird jokes about rodeo animals that I don't even understand. And I'm kind of clumsy and not very eloquent, so believe me, there are plenty of other options from which to choose when you want to make fun of me. I lose my car keys all the time. I can't parallel park. I know all of the words to Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady" and will gladly recite them whenever I hear the song. Yet despite these flaws in my personality, my Tennessee residency gets more laughs than anything else I do. It really irritates me, actually. I have been known to chide my more snooty friends when they make uneducated comments about the South. But people in Tennessee aren't any better than people in the North. I've heard many Nashvillians make fun of Mississippi and Alabama. Everyone belittles Texas. The belittlement just inspires more Southern pride, which inspires more belittlement. And I'm not sure how it's going to change.
So I do agree with the Chicago marketing firm's assessment of the word "South." What they say is true, no matter how much I wish that it weren't. In the end, it's up to the schools to decide their preferred balanced of cultural heritage and academic respect. It's a tricky situation, and one that leaves me without a clear opinion either way.