The University in Runes: Decoding the Privatized Campus

Approaching the Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia one has a sense of leaving the city behind. The long, winding University Boulevard passes through a golf course and stretches of forest before skirting a clear cut in the woods. Over this field of scarred earth the first campus buildings come into view. A satellite city emerges from the trees, announced by a cluster of shops: a low-slung strip mall; a pizza joint; a liquor store; photocopies. It isn’t until you pass the large sign for UBC, however, that you will run a genuine gauntlet of commerce: each side of the thoroughfare is lined with businesses that cater to students’ needs and their appetite for amusement. The blurring of lines between a customer’s real necessities and passing whims is, of course, a rich seam of profit in consumer economies. Here, that blurring of boundaries – call it ‘confusion’ – goes a great deal further, rendering indistinct the line between education and entertainment, reflection and distraction. For the gauntlet of commerce at the end of University Boulevard is on the academic campus itself.

During the past decade this area has been a perennial construction site. It is now nearing completion. As students returned to UBC this term they were greeted with a wholly revamped gateway to campus whose array of shops, cafés, restaurants, bars, mini-markets and rental apartments serve as a kind of open-air advertisement, a life-size scale model for the school’s makeover as a privatized neoliberal university. We might say that in raising this infrastructure, the university has engineered a new student body; as they enter this fully commodified space, students are hailed on all sides as customers.


In this glossy image of higher education one piece of the picture is still missing. A large empty lot stands at the head of the gleaming processional thoroughfare. The vacant space was formerly occupied by an imposing concrete structure, the Brutalist-style General Administration Building. Even empty the space is rich in significance, for the demolition of the General Administration Building signals a larger shift in socio-economic values as inscribed in social space. Brutalism’s midcentury aesthetic of massive, enduring structures reflects that period’s broad investment in education, social welfare and progressive values. In contrast, privatization goes hand-in-hand with the provisionality of the built environment. This newer trend corresponds to architecture’s changing role in a more rapacious economic context: the solid, futuristic security of a Brutalist building is replaced by a World’s Fair aesthetic that cheerfully announces its evanescence. New campus buildings reflect the chaos and precarity imposed on the current generation of students by an all-pervading market ethos.


As if to illustrate this reigning ethos of impermanence, the empty lot where the General Administration Building was turned to rubble is now a stocking area for concrete blocks, a signature design element of the walkways newly installed throughout the UBC campus. Massive as they are, the concrete pavers evoke the solidity of Brutalism’s reinforced concrete while still suggesting the dignity of granite: ersatz cobblestones. It should be pointed out, however, that fake stone is antithetical to the Brutalist aesthetic, which emphasizes the frank, unadorned – one might say ‘honest’ – materiality of exposed concrete. Moreover, since they are installed mortarless on a bed of sand, the new concrete pavers are easily dismantled – a clear asset in a time of constant change. As such, the pavers illustrate a contradiction between the place-bound University and the school’s more abstract function as a conduit for transnational finance. While the university requires the former, it puts up little resistance to the latter; anything too solid is an objection to the flow of capital. And here, in the tension between forces in conflict – the local and the global, community and separation, materiality and fungibility – there still exist tactical chances for resistance and critique. As the student protesters put it in ’68, “under the paving stones, the beach.”

University administrators have slogans of their own. The contradiction between placeless abstraction and site specificity is nicely, if inadvertently, captured by UBC’s new motto, developed at the height of the school’s latest construction boom: “A Place of Mind.” Brainchild of an advertising agency, the motto is no less eloquent for being hopelessly vague. You puzzle at the words, straining for meaning, and invariably give up. “Mind” seems to reach higher than mere ‘learning’ or ‘education,’ but as the word gains loftiness it loses purpose. Indeed, the vocable seems less abstract than evasive; and where purpose is lacking elusiveness works best.

In his prescient study of corporatized education The University in Ruins (1996), Bill Readings demonstrated that hollow bureaucratese is characteristic of neoliberal higher education.* This bears remembering: it took a specialist in literary analysis to decipher the political and economic significance of the emerging language of education branding. The author devotes a good part of his critique to the market logic behind the term “excellence,” a word increasingly used at the time by university administrators and which is now well entrenched in the branding of higher education. For Readings, “excellence” was a term almost devoid of meaning whose vacuousness served the interests of corporatized universities hollowed out by budget cuts, unmoored from social responsibility and increasingly devoted to profitable entrepreneurship.

In the spirit of Readings’ critique, this essay examines the sales and branding language of UBC, a vanguard in privatized, entrepreneurial education. In so doing, we expose the market logic hidden in the transformation of campus space. To invoke ‘runes,’ then, is to credit Readings’ sober analysis while extending semantic inquiry into the analysis of the built environment. The runes of the university speak volumes, allowing us to glimpse under the dreamscapes of the commodified campus the wreckage of public higher education.


One of the broad objectives of free-market fundamentalism is to make capitalism appear “inevitable” while casting alternatives as “impossible.” As we stand at the head of University Boulevard, we might consider its commercial gauntlet as the spatial inscription of this economic logic. Brands, logos, franchises and rental spaces emphatically declaim the privatization of the commons. Indeed, the distinction between public and private is preempted; every consumer ‘choice’ along University Boulevard enacts a foregone decision to enter the marketplace.

It might seem churlish to fault the consumer options arrayed on University Boulevard, were it not that this foregone decision now shapes every aspect of higher education. The rising cost of learning imposes on students the vital need to quickly secure gainful employment, and for students burdened with debt, this purpose is hardly ‘chosen,’ as one might like to believe, but instead conditions their every option and forecloses unprofitable alternatives as irrational or even dangerous to life chances. Reflex judgments place an embargo on thought; as one undergraduate bitterly observes, to “explore opportunities” is now the sole privilege of the rich. An authoritarian logic thus undergirds every ‘choice’ made in one’s curriculum and ‘free time’; we can say that the university trains students before it educates them.** In this context, it is virtually an act of insurrection to appeal to education’s democratic purpose, or what Adorno succinctly calls “the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves.”***

To clear-eyed critics of neoliberalism’s cost-benefit ledgers, the late-capitalist marketplace is a world in which “decisions escape rational scrutiny.” How to square such an ethos of frivolity with the university’s public mission? One need hardly subscribe to a joyless vision of a wholly logical social order to point out that a fundamental conflict obtains between irrational decision-making and the university’s ethos of informed deliberation. On a larger scale, frivolity reinforces consumerism’s “individuation of responsibility,” and by encouraging consumer behavior the marketized university undermines the collective action needed to address the challenges today’s students are bound to face in an overheated, conflict-riven world.


University Boulevard terminates at an open pedestrian plaza recently revamped for UBC’s centennial anniversary. An elaborate water feature leads up to the Main Mall. To the left is the university bookstore, sporting a new facelift. To the right are two new buildings, the posh Alumni Centre and directly adjacent, the vast Student Union building, the latter with an enormous porte cochère suggestive of a grand hotel entrance. These architectural features are already prompting social behavior to match. On a recent day, a stretch limousine pulled into the drive, and a young couple in wedding dress piled out. Three valets in red vests stood at the ready, servicing a steady fleet of Mercedes and Land Rovers. A reception was under way in the lobby of the Alumni Center, where a self-playing grand piano entertained the milling guests.

We have arrived at Money Square.

Money Square, in students’ shorthand, was officially named to honor Money and Raymond M.C. Lee, who made a large contribution to UBC’s latest fundraising and alumni outreach campaign. Philanthropic couples are often identified with the husband’s name first; here, Money takes prime position. The loaded word and its bold placement are so blunt and seemingly guileless as to exasperate critique; it is as if by flaunting the word its meaning could be annulled. But such an evacuation of meaning is, of course, the special talent of advertising. The commodity fetish speaks in runes; as one stands in Money Square, at the very heart of the UBC campus, one is conscripted by winking ad men into the marketplace of ideas.


The square’s name is certainly apt, as the legacy of the recent fundraising campaign is the consecration of private finance in UBC’s future planning. A group of translucent pillars bear the names of donors to a recent campaign with the unlikely moniker “Make an Evolution.” Opaque in meaning, grammatically questionable, the phrase slyly tilts toward counterrevolt; to scan the donors’ names is to incline the soul. One notices familiar giants of industry: Boeing, Google, Coke, Mozilla. Resource and Energy companies are predominant, and there are lots of mining and minerals companies: BCGold Corp; New Gold Inc; Radius Gold; Taku Gold. There is an Angkor Gold Corp, an Independence Gold Corp and a Western Copper and Gold Corporation; a Kirkland Lake Gold, a Kinross Gold Corporation and a Kaminak Gold Corporation. Inevitably, there is a Klondike Gold Corporation; improbably, an Iamgold Corporation. How to make sense of this grab bag of miscellany, this citizen dissembly? Alphabetically, of course; in the absence of social purpose the arbitrary reigns. The brash incoherence of Money Square symbolizes the school’s capture by market forces and a failure on the part of faculty and administrators to save it from privatization.

The market rewards obedience by favoring those who condone the disproportion of wealth. The donor’s monument has implanted this morality of profitable subservience at the heart of the university campus. Dubious in itself within a context of research and critical inquiry, the moral norm of obedience implies more today, however, than a mere aspiration to increase one’s spending power by submitting to a job. In an economic context of ever-growing inequality, disparities of wealth spell widely divergent life chances between those the market values and those it devalues, dispossesses or expels. Complicity in this widening “distribution of pain” implies one’s participation in neoliberalism’s reigning logic, the extraction of profit from the privatization of social wealth. Public institutions like UBC are prime targets of such profit extraction. Given this economic context, the donors’ monument is deeply ironic, to say the least. One might always choose to see the monument as UBC’s grateful nod to philanthropists in trying economic times. But this begs the question. Why celebrate private finance, when a memorial to public support would be more appropriate?


Across Money Plaza stands the UBC Bookstore, whose striking Brutalist entryway was recently demolished and replaced with an airy glass box. This new design is inarguably more practical for displaying the bookstore’s goods. What kind of goods? If spatial precedence signifies priority, the entryway announces the store’s main intent. On a recent day in 2019, we counted 861 individual items sporting the university’s brand and a grand total of 28 books: a ratio, in other words, of thirty to one.


Equally important as this marketing of branded merchandise is the bookstore’s role as visual element in an overall picture. And as with the General Administration Building, this image of the neoliberal University is not merely incompatible with the aesthetics of late Twentieth-Century Brutalism; it demands the ephemeralization of the built environment. If one looks closely, however, one can detect a load-bearing concrete beam at the far end of the bookstore’s glass box entryway; tellingly, it has been faced with gypsum drywall, as if the mere glimpse of a Brutalist design feature were an ocular offense.

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A picture, the saying goes, is one thousand times more valuable than a given word. Grim calculus, discouraging to the bookish. The technocrats who renovated the UBC Bookstore used a similar evaluative measurement in designing the building’s picture windows, where hundreds of disjointed words are etched into the glass. The alphabetical jumble of words implicitly devalues their meaning, as each verbal unit is reduced to a mere pixel in an overall image of language. Moreover, the design premise is mirrored across the plaza, where white stripes are etched in the glass of the Alumni Centre, subtly reinforcing an equivalence between words and meaningless graphic lines. A larger design conceit underscores this divestment from meaning: on selected panes of the bookstore, the word-pixels serve as the graphic background for the university’s initials in large capital letters. Language in this way conveys nothing, and so serves the university’s brand.

The architects, however, claim a loftier inspiration for their design: the words on glass are arranged in specific permutations they credit to the postmodern novelist Italo Calvino. The design’s general effect, though, is a garbling of meaning, an incoherent screen of language, and in this way the technocrats have subtly promoted the administrative logic of obfuscation. Were this their conscious intent, the designers might have done better by citing Calvino’s countryman, Filippo Marinetti, whose sound-poem Zang Tumb Tuuum divorced words from meaning in the service of aesthetic fascism. A missed opportunity; Zang Tumb Tuuum might have served to garble UBC’s civic and democratic motto, the ingenuous phrase “it’s yours” in Latin: Tuum est.

Regents and administrators seldom speak openly of their intent to privatize higher education and deliver it over to the market, so when hired contractors opine about the university’s reasons for being, it’s worth attending to what they say. This is all the more the case when those contractors are Vancouver architects, whose general purpose is to deliver luxury products to the global elite and promote the upward concentration of landed wealth. The project description is posted next to a wall of books in box frames, splayed like butterflies. It seems appropriate that the books can no longer be read, that they are now in a sense dead. One thinks of Nabokov, that maniacal lepidopterist, who describes “the satisfying crackle” of his pin penetrating a butterfly and “the subsiding spasms of its body.”*

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But the designers have a clean conscience. Their breezy explanation of the project is a marvel of inanity. “Reading is, of course, an enjoyable past-time [sic] to many, and writing is an art to be celebrated,” the authors observe. Lame as this may be, they press on: “However, we are struck with the idea of dismantling great pieces of work.” Why, one wonders. Also: what motivates that ominous “however”? A lot hinges on the word, though its warrant is unclear. Perhaps they meant to say ‘regardless,’ since their reference to literacy’s obvious merits (“of course”!) seems not only inane but dismissive. Indeed, one suspects that “dismantling” is actually its own self-justification, and that the designers, maybe dimly grasping their role in the neoliberal university’s larger purpose, have provided an illustration of the entrepreneurial logic of disruption. Applied to books and the words they contain, disruption, it seems, calls for a sabotage of the very idea of communicative language; as the designers sagely observe, “All writing is but a collection of words.”

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All writing is but a collection of words. This sweeping demotion of verbal communication is technocratic at heart; the “idea” that “struck” the designers is Calvino’s premise of a computer sorting texts according to their most frequently-used words. One might call this is a ‘democratic’ approach to language, the eminently civic value of popularity helpfully delivered by a benevolent and impartial machine: an electoral politics of reading, if you will. But as in neoliberal governance, and in modern liberalism more generally, a leveling force underlies the consecration of the atomized individual. This force, nominally equalizing, is amoral and, at the limit, sociopathic to the extent that it replaces qualitative values with the merely quantitative.

It seems no accident, then, that the bookstore’s designers approached their project in a canvassing mode. “We wanted to engage the community in the new Bookstore’s development,” they explain, “by surveying individuals from around the UBC campus,” and they specify that this sample of the “community” included “professors, students, administrators and tourists.” Let’s put aside for a moment the ingenuous conflation of professors and students with administrators. Even more troubling is the inclusion of tourists in this definition of the university “community,” a claim that bears the unmistakable stamp of neoliberalism. By favoring the global flow of capital over local constraints, deregulation in the current era of predatory finance leads quite naturally to the destruction of local communities and values. To include tourists among the university’s members reflects the same logic by which Airbnb fosters the experience of ‘community’: plowing deep into local space, the rental platform allows outsiders to claim residency, all the while displacing local inhabitants. A moral norm follows, as surely as a coffle: where everyone has a right to belong, all are reduced to mere visitors.



As dusk falls on Money Square, the pillars of the donors’ monument glow from within, pulsing in shades of blue as the color swells, fades and moves like a shadow from post to post. At first glance the patterns and pulsing rhythms appear random. In fact they are generated by motion sensors trained on passersby. The result is a monument that is subtly authoritarian, for in their dubious bid to create an ‘interactive’ and ‘participatory’ monument, the designers have made honoring the donors an involuntary necessity of every passing student. The monument is ‘interactive,’ then, mainly in the sense that it defeats one’s inattention. In a similar way, a student or professor could be said to ‘interact’ with the distracting roar of rich UBC students’ luxury sports cars, increasingly common on the neoliberal campus.

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The cold drives us into the Alumni Centre, proud home of entrepreneurship@ubc. In the lobby, an imposing wall of black steel is inscribed with biographical highlights from the life of the building’s namesake, Robert H. Lee. Former real estate developer become university power broker, Lee’s proudest achievement, the bio pointedly informs us, is his creation of the UBC Properties Trust, “the first in North America to sell market housing on a university campus.” This developer’s feat would presumably illustrate, in Lee’s inspiring words, “the importance of giving back to the community.”

The bio specifically mentions that the university sells buildings on leased land only — a qualification subtly indicative of a qualm, perhaps. And the developer become chancellor might well be cheered for selling only the structures and not the land they stand on. In this way, UBC has avoided the sad fate of some Vancouver public schools which, forced by tax cuts to sell their land, have lately had to rent back the properties their buildings occupy. But this distinction misses the larger point: that turning the university over to the market destabilizes the school in ways more fundamental than the loss of land. The financialization of the school renders it fundamentally exposed to the whims of the market and shackles it to the financial imperative of short-term profit.

Moreover, the sale of buildings to private owners has effects that exacerbate privatizing trends and promote values that are at odds with the public university. Just who exactly are those wealthy strangers walking their dogs on the campus, or jogging in the early hours? On any given day a drive down Chancellor Drive is a tour of active real estate listings for a speculative market in luxury homes: condos with ocean views, the blinds always drawn; apartments that turn over at an alarming rate; tank-like black SUVs, eerily dark “zombie” homes….

A fireplace glows in the lobby’s seating area. Gilded books decorate the surrounding shelves, stacked like gold bricks in some lucky patron’s vault. The effect is perplexing: if the decorative premise is meant to honor the books’ value, they have nonetheless been subtracted from any possible use — an insistent theme, apparently, in this part of campus. We’re tempted to say that gilded, unreadable books illustrate a socio-economic contradiction between the university’s historical purpose and the commodification of knowledge. A designer, though, might say “they look nice.”


Oddly, Dean Koontz is well represented here. An author known for lurid mass-market paperbacks, here in UBC’s Alumni Centre he has ascended to the realm of venerable tomes with gilt edging. We note a copy of the book Champion, by Fabio (yes, that Fabio), and a Reader’s Digest Select Edition, which omnibus volume includes Bad Blood by Linda Fairstein, The Long Walk Home by Will North, The Blue Zone by Andrew Gross, and Iris and Ruby by Rosie Thomas — titles you won’t find among the UBC library’s holdings.


As in a dream, objects here take on strange and disturbing meanings. As in a nightmare, we can’t help but take them personal. We note a copy of the Koontz novel Relentless, whose plot involves the mortal combat between a “successful” author and a “sociopathic” literary critic. The critic with a “poison pen” is bent on destruction: “he’ll destroy you, your family, and everything you hold dear,” says the book’s blurb. Could this be a shot across the bow to the humanities, those meddlesome critics? Or, more likely — but which is worse? — might there be no intent here, just the random meaninglessness of edutainment?

The intellectually edifying Relentless is accompanied by The One Minute Sales Person, with the subtitle: The Quickest Way to Sell People on Yourself, Your Services, Products, or Ideas, by Spencer Johnson, M.D. We’re brought up short for a moment by the phrase “sell people,” but Dr. Johnson nudges us on: “We are all salesmen,” he helpfully observes, “from the president of the United States to ourselves.” Penned apparently in 1984, the dictum has proved its worth.

A tinkling, meanwhile, echoes in the reception lobby, where a grand piano plays itself. A vaguely disturbing sight: the keys are depressed in shifting patterns by some invisible force to some inscrutable end. Abstracted students are sunk in plush chairs nearby. We listen to the music for a moment, then, like a person losing interest in someone speaking to them, fall to merely hearing it. There may be something beneath this level of inattention. The sounds join the murmur of voices from the cafe next door. We notice that a motto is engraved into a gold plate mounted on the piano. Reckless, we seek some meaning in it. “Where words fail, music speaks,” it declares. Who would argue? Music is fine. But we’re jolted by the idea of the university as a place where words fail.

These runes rattle in the skull as we exit the building. It’s almost a relief to return to the jackhammers and brick and mortar saws outside. The last pavers are being installed around the floor-to-ceiling shop windows of the new market rental complex at the end of University Boulevard.


*See Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

**Theodor Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” in The Culture Industry (London: Routledge, 1991), 106.

***On “authoritarian” logic in this context, see Melinda Cooper, “All in the Family Debt: How Neoliberals and Conservatives Came Together to Undo the Welfare State,” Boston Review, May 31, 2017 (link).


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Filed under Architecture & Urbanism, Politics of Discourse, Uncategorized

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