Eduvation Blog

Decolonizing PSE Brands


Good morning, and happy Midsummer!

Today marks the Summer Solstice – the most “enlightened” day of the year in the northern hemisphere. (Some call it “Daylight Appreciation Day.”) Here in southern Ontario, we can look forward to 15 hours and 21 minutes of daylight. (Your mileage may vary, depending upon your latitude – and the weather.)  

It’s an annual celebration that spans the human experience on Earth, from prehistory and pagan times through Shakespearean comedy and right up to the present day. Astronomers may have mapped celestial trajectories with ever-improving precision, but the scientific worldview and Indigenous ways of knowing agree this is a special day. As the UN puts it, the solstice unifies cultural heritage and centuries of tradition, “strengthening the ties among peoples on the basis of mutual respect.”


“[Celebration of solstices and equinoxes] is an embodiment of the unity of the cultural heritage and centuries-long traditions, and further play a significant role in strengthening the ties among peoples on the basis of mutual respect.”United Nations

So, what better time to celebrate National Indigenous Peoples’ Day? CdnPSE has hundreds of NIPD events and recognitions planned from coast to coast, today and tomorrow. (Meanwhile, some will obliviously and solipsistically celebrate National Selfie Day, while at the opposite extreme, some will reflect on their own agency and actions, and how to benefit society for World Humanist Day. It’s also apparently a day to celebrate Peaches and Cream, Yoga and Skateboarding, Smoothies and Cherry Tarts, Music and Motorcycles. Far too many things competing for our attention today!)

Over the years I’ve produced half a dozen episodes of Ten with Ken in which I interview college and university presidents about Indigenization. Check out Vianne Timmons on Why Indigenization Matters, Mike DeGagné on Serving Indigenous Students Better, or this look at 100 Ways to Indigenize the Academy.

This week, I’m preparing for a CMO Roundtable focused on PSE Branding – and as I review trends over the course of the pandemic, one provides a pretty timely theme for today…


Decolonizing PSE

From neogothic architecture and cathedral-like lecture halls to the elaborate robes, thrones, maces and parchments of convocation, the world of higher education has an almost fetishistic obsession with medieval Europe. The reverence afforded aspirational PSE brands like Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard is encapsulated in their heraldic coats of arms and official seals. Sadly, the essence of academia for centuries has been Eurocentric and colonial, and the work of indigenization and decolonization poses a challenge to CdnPSE like few others in our time – but it appears to be a challenge that institutional brands are embracing…  


Marginalizing Racists

The COVID19 pandemic seems to have prompted widespread societal reflection on racism, sexism, and Indigenous reconciliation, and in many ways PSE campuses have been at the epicentre. Back in June 2020, I reported that #BlackLivesMatter protests were finally reaching a tipping point, forcing even the most storied institutions to seriously reconsider the names of historical figures adorning their campus buildings, colleges, plaques and statues. Clemson U finally dropped Calhoun College and renamed Tillman Hall. uAlbama removed 3 confederate plaques. James Madison U renamed Jackson, Ashby, and Maury Halls. Monmouth U renamed Woodrow Wilson Hall. uOregon renamed Deady Hall. uVirginia renamed Ruffner Hall in honour of its first African American PhD grad. uCincinnati removed Marge Schott’s name from the baseball stadium. Alabama State began to remove the names of KKK members from their buildings, and hundreds of other institutions struck committees to reconsider building and college names, like the 26 institutions in the University System of Georgia. UNC Chapel Hill lifted a moratorium on name changes that was imposed in 2015 and was supposed to last until 2031. In Canada, UNB renamed Ludlow Hall. In Britain, uLiverpool renamed Gladstone Hall. London Metropolitan U renamed the Cass School. Even Oxford’s Oriel College finally removed the statue of Cecil Rhodes. (In 2015 they argued that they would lose Ł100 M in donations should the statue be taken down.)


Embracing Indigeneity

Although the ceremonial mace is unquestionably a European symbol of royal authority and power, Dalhousie U replaced theirs in May 2019 with the New Dawn Staff of Place and Belonging, a symbolic walking stick crafted by First Nations artists as a ceremonial object for convocations. CdnPSE brand identities have also been increasingly embracing Indigeneity. When I ranked the “World’s Best PSE Rebrands” in 2015-17, I gave pride of place to Capilano U’s colourful new identity, which masterfully blended a traditional academic shield and eagle feathers in the Coast Salish Indigenous tradition. Langara College adopted a dual-name brand identity in April 2019, which put its Musqueam name, snəw̓eyəɬ leləm̓ (“house of teachings”) front and centre. And in June 2019, uManitoba unveiled its gorgeous new brand identity, which “leaves behind symbols that no longer represent all of us” and replaces the traditional heraldic shield with a curved landscape and “blue prairie sky that carves out a bold new path.”

More and more, CdnPSEs are finding dynamic, modern ways to “reconcile” traditional European heritage and Indigenous perspectives, at least in terms of brand identities.


Anti-Racist Athletics

In the past few years, many pro sports and varsity teams have retired racist brand names. In 2020, following the George Floyd protests, the Washington Redskins became the Commanders. The Cleveland Indians dropped their “Chief Wahoo” logo in 2018, and changed their name to the Guardians this year. The Edmonton Eskimos became the Elks last summer. And even CdnPSE has been affected…  

McGill U finally dropped the use of “Redmen” for varsity athletics in April 2019, after widespread student protests and just before the name’s 100th anniversary. Obviously, the name referred to the team colours, but Indigenous imagery was featured from the 1940s onward. Students voted 79% to change the name in 2018, protesting that Redmen was “inherently a slur” that created an unsafe space on campus. In Nov 2020, it was announced the men’s teams would henceforth be known as the “Redbirds,” while women’s teams remained the “Martlets.”  CBC

Simon Fraser U announced in Aug 2020 that it would drop “The Clan” from its varsity teams, which had been known as the Clansmen since 1965. The name had been a nod to the Scottish heritage of fur trader Simon Fraser, of course, but many Americans thought first of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan – and SFU has been playing cross-border NCAA sports since 2011. A student petition in the summer of 2020 gathered more than 13,000 signatures. SFU athletes were flooding social media with #NotYourClansman memes. SFU’s president explained that “the single most important factor influencing my decision is the views of student-athletes on this matter.” (Although the Varsity Team Name Working Group met repeatedly in 2021, so far as I can tell the teams are still competing simply under the SFU name.)  Global  |  The Peak  |  SFU News  |  SFU Athletics

UNBC’s Timberwolves adopted a new “alternate logo and jersey” in Oct 2021, designed by Gitxsan alum Trevor Angus. The Gitxsan wolf jerseys are reportedly the first time a Canadian university has worn an Indigenous-designed logo. UNBC elder-in-residence Marcel Gagnon, a Juno-award-winning musician, gifted a custom song to the Timberwolves, and provided voiceover for the impressive launch video.  CBC  |  YouTube vid  |  UNBC News

Much work remains to decolonize North American athletics, of course. The Atlanta Braves show no sign of changing their name, and defiantly retain the tone-deaf “tomahawk chop” too. George Washington U announced just this month that it will rename its “Colonials” by Fall 2023 – although it will continue to use the name, introduced in 1926, until then.


Name Changes

While de-commemorating racists has resulted in the removal of many statues and plaques across North America, and the renaming of thousands of campus buildings, it is finally starting to impact PSE brands at the highest level…


Dixie State U (Utah) announced in late 2020 that it needed to change its name, which reflected the southern origins of 38 Mormon settler families, who had hoped to bring cotton plantations to Utah. The institution had used some variation of “Dixie” as its name since 1913, and the NAACP had been pushing for years to get it changed. (Until 1993, the University was still using the Confederate flag, and students were embracing minstrel shows, slave auctions and blackface!) Outside of Utah, 64% of the public associated “Dixie” with racism and slavery. Fully 20% of Dixie State’s recent grads reported that the name was “hindering their employment opportunities.” Last November, the university announced it would rebrand as Utah Tech as of this July, although the main campus would continue to be called the “Dixie campus.” (The state Senate narrowlyapproved the name change, with many Republicans arguing against “cancel culture.”) Earlier this month, Utah Tech unveiled its new red and blue logo in a 1:20 explainer video.  New York Times  |  Salt Lake Tribune  |  Logo vid

“We started to receive evidence that our name was beginning to be problematic. Students reported that the name was hindering their employment opportunities.” – Richard Williams, president, Dixie State U


George Washington U, a private college in Washington DC, is being accused of systemic racism by some students. GWU’s Mount Vernon campus is named for George Washington’s slave plantation, and “every day, hundreds of Black students walk on a campus named after an enslaver of men.” To address inequality, students are urging decolonized curriculum, increased Black enrolment, an African-American president, and even renaming of the institution (perhaps for Frederick Douglass). “It’s time to fully dissociate with problematic patterns of indifference to racial injustice.”  Washington Post

“These pleas for racial justice are a reflection of a shifting paradigm in American politics in which compromise and intolerance are no longer an option.”Caleb François, senior, George Washington U


Ryerson’s Faculty of Law opened in Sept 2020 – and just 7 months later, it was renamed for Lincoln Alexander, the first Black MP in Canada, a lawyer and Ontario Lieutenant-Governor. “Throughout his career, Mr. Alexander demonstrated a longstanding commitment to championing education and youth initiatives and advancing racial equality… and we hope that our students will similarly serve and support others in their future careers holding true to their values with the same fervor that he did.”  TMU

Which brings us of course to…


Egerton Ryerson

Egerton Ryerson is widely considered the “father” of public education in Ontario – but he was also one of the architects of the residential school system, which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission demonstrated was an attempt at “cultural genocide.” The discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at residential school sites has triggered anguish and unprecedented impetus for change. Elementary and secondary schools across the country have been renamed (including one here in London). Statues have come down, and more will follow.

“Given that our namesake is increasingly recognized as a symbol of colonialism, our identity as an institution can no longer be disentangled from separate schools, segregation, the genocide of Indigenous Peoples and cultural erasure.”Standing Strong Task Force, Ryerson U


Renaming Ryerson

Ryerson U has been struggling with the racist legacy of its namesake for years now, but it came to a head last year in the midst of the pandemic. Last June, students and professors started calling Ryerson “X University,” and protesters defaced, toppled, and beheaded Ryerson’s statue on campus. The “Standing Strong Task Force” spent 9 months in consultations and deliberations, ultimately submitting 22 recommendations to the board of governors last August – including renaming the University. (A co-chair insisted the process was “really not about judging Egerton Ryerson,” but about the values and aspirations of the campus community today.) A renaming task force undertook months of consultations and considered >2,600 suggested names, in order to develop a shortlist.  (TMU recounts the process of “writing the next chapter” in a 3:30 min vid.) Ultimately, president Mohamed Lachemi recommended a name with “longevity and gravitas” to the board of governors: Toronto Metropolitan U.

“We really have to ask ourselves if we want to be an institution that focuses on commemorating 19th century colonial administrators. The new name… looks ahead to the next seven generations.”Catherine Ellis, history prof, Toronto Metropolitan U


Reactions to TMU

While many marginalized groups at TMU praised the name change as a good first step towards reconciliation, there was of course pushback. Disappointed alumni complained in the Toronto Sun about the “utterly uninspiring name,” and continued to argue that Egerton Ryerson was getting “a bad rap.” An op-ed in the National Post ranted that “Canada’s woke chickens came home to roost” with TMU’s “newly sanitized name.” The Toronto Star editorial board argued that a bland name was the whole point, and that “any name probably would have worked.” (Although, they observed, TMU sounded a lot like the Toronto Metropolitan Zoo, Toronto Metropolitan Library, and Toronto Metropolitan Church, as well as uToronto, uToronto Mississauga, and uToronto Scarborough.) President Lachemi countered that London Metropolitan U exists alongside uLondon, and Tokyo Metropolitan U alongside uTokyo.


So Who’s Next?

Plenty of CdnPSEs have buildings, faculties, schools, athletics teams or entire institutions named after problematic figures. Dalhousie U examined its founder’s historical connections to slavery in depth, concluding in Sept 2019 that an official apology and other reparations were warranted, but not a name change. Wilfrid Laurier U launched the Laurier Legacy Project last summer, to investigate the discriminatory immigration policies established under Canada’s longest-serving prime minister and consider his “complex legacy” as nation-builder and “contributor to systems of racism and discrimination.” (So far, no name change is on the table.)

“Nobody is saying that Lord Dalhousie should be erased from history. People are saying he should be placed in the proper historical context.”Isaac Saney, historian, Dalhousie U


“As an institution of higher learning, we have a responsibility to research and reflect upon our namesake. We need to better understand who Wilfrid Laurier was, to fully realize the impact of our university’s affiliation with his name and legacy.”Deborah MacLatchy, president, Wilfrid Laurier U


For higher ed brand practitioners, a name change constitutes one of the biggest disruptions in institutional reputation imaginable. When a university opts to abandon its established name recognition, you can be sure that the alternative has been carefully weighed, and deemed even more damaging.



I’ve been saving this vid for almost 2 months, specifically for today’s issue…

Our New Chapter

Toronto Metropolitan U unveiled its new name at the end of April with this 2-min vid that explains, “every name begins as a possibility, a future to be imagined.” TMU’s values have always included “intentional inclusivity amplifying voices and perspectives to drive social change,” and the institution is committed to service, innovation, global reach and city building. “Just as our values lead us to reimagine the future, so do we reimagine ourselves.”  YouTube

As always, thanks for reading!  

And please do drop me a line if you come across other thought-provoking trends or inspiring examples of PSE marketing!


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