AU should consider changing WONK after backlash

By now, you’ve heard Kathy Griffin teased Anderson Cooper on CNN for receiving the AU “Wonk of the Year” award. Cooper stammered in response, struggling to define the word that he supposedly embodied. As publicity opportunities go, it wasn’t quite Ted Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama for president at Bender Arena.

And the backlash was swift. Carter Gibson, a 2012 graduate of the Kogod Business School, wrote an op-ed for In The Capital lamenting the incident, calling for an end to the WONK campaign. More than 2,000 people liked the article on Facebook and AU Vice President for Communication Terry Flannery deemed it important enough to respond the next day.

The issue has not gone away. Student Government Secretary Rosemary Cipriano made a presentation to the University Marketing Advisory Council on Jan. 16. She said students were approaching her and SG President Pat Kelly about the Gibson piece and broader issues with the WONK campaign.

Gibson’s op-ed was hyperbolic and overstated the embarrassment AU suffered from 45 seconds on a New Year’s Eve special (itself an annual train wreck) because the effect of that incident on AU’s brand has yet to be revealed.

With that said, student opposition to WONK is real and Flannery has done little to answer Gibson’s points on this front. In her response, she points to a 2013 AU survey that shows 40 percent of undergraduates and 42 percent of alumni view the WONK campaign’s effect on the University image as positive. Around a quarter of students and alumni feel the effect is neutral and an unspecific “minority” feel the effect is negative. Basic math indicates that number is around 35 percent — not much smaller than the percentage of supporters. The survey itself was conducted by AU and could suffer from non-response bias.

Even if it does not, those are not particularly encouraging numbers after three years. WONK is giving prospective students second thoughts. So much in fact, that it is causing some accepted students to attend other universities. It’s dissuading others from even applying.

To some extent though, this argument is flawed. Current students and alumni already bought what AU admissions was selling. The WONK campaign is aimed at high school students who are still deciding where to pursue a college education. Its purpose is to convince them that AU is a worthwhile investment, but there is no evidence that says this is not happening.

AU has not experienced a decline in applications by any stretch. In fact the University has steadily gotten more selective. But that trend began before WONK started in 2010 and will continue or change based on the quality of the academic program and college experience it provides.

The degree of WONK’s success is unclear, but as long as it plays a role it should have the backing of the campus community. The students, faculty and staff define the experience here. It’s only reasonable to promote that experience as something positive. But at the same time, the backlash to WONK calls into question whether that’s happening.

AU shouldn’t change only because Anderson Cooper was caught off-guard on national TV. But if that starts a conversation that leads to more community input, maybe it was for the best.

Devin Mitchell is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs.

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