Stony Brook University’s new logo, unveiled last week, conveys an image of conformity, corporate blandness and grasping, superficial aspiration. It is an image perfect for a university that, in the past few years, has moved ever farther down the road of privatization in search of the imagined prestige it envies in some of its older, more exclusive counterparts.
The university’s previous logo, consisting of rays and stars inside a trio of red, green and blue circles, was designed by legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser of “I love NY” fame. It was original, distinctive and, in a field where prestige is closely associated with age and tradition, exceptionally daring. In the entire Stony Brook brand there was nary a shield, a seal or a coat of arms to be found, eschewing design tropes that are ubiquitous in the branding of American universities.
Glaser’s design suggested that the university did not feel the need to try to disguise the fact that, as a public institution that was less than 50 years old when the logo was designed, no one was going to mistake Stony Brook for Harvard. It suggested a university prepared to embrace its youth and diversity and be something different, something unbound by the often-archaic conventions of American higher education, where every institution that isn’t a 400-year-old private university founded by Puritans seems to hope everyone will somehow miraculously believe it is.
The new logo, a red shield that retains a mutilated version of Glaser’s rays and stars – now reduced to a single star and a group of rays that, with their point of origin cropped out of the picture, seem to be shining from nowhere onto nothing – is derivative where its predecessor was daring. This hackneyed mash-up of that most ubiquitous of all university logos, the shield, with a pointlessly altered version of Glaser’s logo manages the astonishing feat of being trite and faddish at the same time. Retaining some of Glaser’s elements means no one is going to mistake the shield for that of Harvard or Yale or any other ancient and venerable institution, yet it lacks the freshness and modernity of his design. It is neither here nor there, the worst of all worlds.
Glaser doesn’t like the new logo, and rightfully so. Designers tend not to like it when other designers, especially lesser ones, mess with their work. Stony Brook took a design by one of the greatest graphic designers of the modern era and had it “tweaked” into near-unrecognizability by an ad agency from, of all places, Alabama. It’s rather like taking a building by a great architect and having it renovated by a company that specializes in designing Hilton Garden Inns (one of which will, of course, soon grace this campus). One suspects the architect in question wouldn’t have nice things to say. And in this case, he would be right.
But Glaser seems to know exactly what the university apparently found wrong with his design. In an interview with the Press he commented, “I have a feeling that in the academic community, there’s a reluctance to be overly assertive.” The old logo stood out. It didn’t look the logos of the universities Stony Brook’s administration now not so secretly wishes to be just like. The new logo may be a terrible piece of design, but it blends in among the vast array of other collegiate shields. That is, no doubt, exactly what the university wants: a logo that is indistinguishable from those of the rarefied institutions it so desperately envies.
It is no coincidence that Glaser was commissioned to design the old logo by his good friend Shirley Strum Kenny during her tenure as president of the university. Whatever one thought of Kenny’s decisions and management style – and she was certainly not without her critics, including at this paper – she was not one to shy away from taking chances. The new logo is likewise a perfect metaphor for the leadership of Kenny’s successor, Samuel Stanley. Whereas Kenny was a visionary if controversial leader who was unafraid of risk, Stanley is a technocrat with a deep fondness for management consultants. He is not the sort of person one can imagine calling up his good friend the world-renowned designer to create a new logo.
But this is about far more than the contrasting personalities of two university presidents. Since he took office, Stanley has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for the gradual privatization of Stony Brook and public institutions in general. The new logo signifies this vision. Whereas the old logo said, “I’m different and I’m not ashamed of it,” the new one says, “I’m trying to pretend to be an expensive, exclusive private university, even though I’m not one and never will be.”
The new logo will no doubt serve Stony Brook well as it continues down the path of privatization, chasing prestige by jettisoning that which makes it unique and instead emulating its supposed betters instead. But it is also a perfect symbol of the opportunity forfeited by following that path: an opportunity to prove that a great university need not be defined by exclusivity and tradition, but can instead attain greatness by fostering inclusivity and innovation.