UC Davis Wins Mellon Grant to Explore Academic Brands

Mario Biagioli
Mario Biagioli

University brands have become a key factor in attracting top faculty and students, as well as funding and gifts. Two UC Davis professors have been awarded a Sawyer Seminar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to analyze what academic brands can tell us about the modern university. 

“Branding has become much more than a marketing strategy or a mere symptom of the corporatization and privatization of the university,” said Mario Biagioli, co-principal investigator on the grant and the founding director of the Center for Science and Innovation Studies in the College of Letters and Science.

The global expansion and diversification of academic brands is both a symptom and a cause of the profound changes that are affecting the university’s function and identity, Biagioli said. “Brands are both crucial evidence of fundamental changes as well as tools to think critically about those changes,” added Biagioli, who holds joint appointments in the Science and Technology Studies Program, the School of Law and the Department of History.

Madhavi Sunder
Madhavi Sunder

The seminar series, called “Academic Brands: Privatizing, Quantifying, and Transforming the University,” will bring together scholars with different skills and perspectives that have not intersected before, said co-principal investigator Madhavi Sunder, senior associate dean of the UC Davis School of Law.

For example, the Sawyer Seminar will also explore the increasingly pervasive adoption of quantitative metrics of evaluation in the university and the hypothesis that metrics and excellence are related in the same way that excellence and brands are. “Paying attention to the introduction of metrics and the turning of academia into an ‘audit society’ provides a heuristic window on the co-emergence of branding and the discourse of excellence,” Sunder said.

The proposed seminar emerges from and builds on previous projects by the co-PIs, such as the 2016 “Gaming Academic Metrics” conference sponsored by an Interdisciplinary Frontiers in the Humanities and Arts grant, and the 2013 “Brand New World” conference co-sponsored by the UC Davis Humanities Institute, the Center for Science and Innovation Studies and the School of Law, and supported by a Google Scholar Award.

This is UC Davis’s third Sawyer Seminar award, which requires an invitation to submit a proposal. The Mellon Foundation’s Sawyer Seminars were established in 1994 to provide support for comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments.

A Sawyer Seminar grant creates a temporary research center for interdisciplinary study and public programs. The $225,000 grant to UC Davis will fund a postdoctoral research fellow and two advanced graduate students. It will also underwrite the travel costs associated with bringing to UC Davis an array of scholars for a series of symposia in 2018.

Becky Oskin, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science.