It was about a year ago that AU students returned to campus to discover a rather unpleasant surprise awaiting them, which presented itself in the form of a four-letter word: WONK. And in that year, AU has spent over $800,000 convincing us that a wonk is “a hard-working, intellectually curious person,” as opposed to some of the less-pleasant definitions that might come to mind.
AU spent that money giving out free WONK shirts to students, posting WONK ads in what felt like every Metro station and bus shelter in D.C., redesigning the Welcome Center for the second time in as many years, giving away prizes to students who took pictures of themselves in front of WONK ads and providing graduates with the opportunity to pose for photos with life-sized “commencement WONK” cartoons. Our tuition dollars hard at work.
In fairness, most branding campaigns have somewhat of an inherent illogicality to them. However, I believe WONK has failed not so much due to the substance of the campaign, but due to the University’s stubborn refusal to respond to students’ concerns about the campaign.
From the beginning, controversy over WONK spread quickly across campus. Although a lot of students acquiesced to WONK after learning the premise behind it, many other students stood vehemently opposed to the idea of WONK being used as a label for the AU community. Complaints ran the gamut from issues with the word itself to the budget allocated to the campaign and even to claims of RAs feeling pressured to wear WONK shirts for fear of their jobs.
University Marketing Director Teresa Flannery, in an interview with The Eagle, obstinately stated that the negative reactions “mirror[ed] the range of reactions we saw when we tested the concept.” She also claimed that students were “extensively and repeatedly” consulted over the two-year process of conceiving of WONK, although Student Government officials told The Eagle that they had not learned of WONK until that summer.
Eventually, the Marketing Department relented and scheduled its own student town hall meeting on WONK. But in the months that followed the town hall, there appeared to be no visible actions taken to address any student grievances, while WONK paraphernalia continued to proliferate campus culture.
Students who had concerns about the WONK campaign couldn’t bring them to the Student Government either. The Senate enacted a policy of neutrality on the WONK campaign: no member of the SG could take any public stance on WONK.
The policy indicated that it would allow the SG to gauge student opinion, but really it allowed the SG to dodge its responsibility of representing students’ concerns to the AU administration on this touchy issue. The policy’s mandates for gauging student opinion — SG-organized town halls and email surveys on WONK — never happened, and the neutrality stance remains in effect.
The inaction of the Student Government, and the blithe indifference of the University and its marketing department, have caused the outrage over WONK to simmer down to little more than a stream of snarky comments in Eagle Rants. But it is shameful that at the University ranked among the most politically active in the country, we have been given the message that we have no real say over our own identity. It is ridiculous that the administration continues to force WONK upon us through gimmicks like photo contests and life-sized cartoons. And it is disappointing that a golden opportunity to bring this campus together by creating a common identity for ourselves was shattered due to an unwillingness to communicate with — and listen to — students.