The University of California’s campus in Berkeley is referred to by many names, including UC Berkeley, Berkeley, California and Cal. But a new task force is considering changes to the longstanding ways to identify the campus.
The Berkeley/Cal Identity Task Force will review current naming practices and present its recommendations by the end of the year. At issue is campus’s dual identity as “UC Berkeley” in academic contexts and “Cal” in athletic contexts.
In her charge letter dated Sept. 16, Chancellor Carol Christ identified having two distinct identities as problematic for branding and for an inclusive sense of identity, particularly for student athletes.
“I feel like I represent ‘Cal’ but have a hard time getting myself to believe I represent ‘UC Berkeley’,” said Leah Schmidt, a campus junior and student athlete, in an Slack direct message. “As a student athlete I sometimes feel like I’m a business prop as my body is a commodity for the school instead of someone bringing pride to the school through academics.”
According to Patrick Holmes, campus executive director of communications & marketing and co-chair of the task force, the task force is working with a brand agency to conduct “extensive” research to understand the brand equity of the names in use. Holmes noted that a national survey showed that 65% of respondents did not know that “Berkeley” and “Cal” are the same school.
The work will cost approximately $100,000, covered by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs using one-time salary savings from last year due to vacancies.
“Our hope would be that any changes would bolster the reputation of the campus,” Holmes said. “Each variation of our name is associated with different aspects of our storied history and reputation for excellence. We want people to know that Berkeley and Cal are one university.”
However, many students and faculty members alike have expressed concerns over campus’s decision to prioritize this issue over other issues. Campus film and media associate professor Jeffrey Skoller compared the decision to implement the identity committee to “Nero fiddling while Rome is burning.”
Other professors, including campus English associate professor Anne-Lise François, cited rising numbers of unhoused students, underfunded campus libraries, rising class sizes and under-ventilated classrooms as a list of needs on campus that should take precedence over rebranding.
“Fix the institution before you fix the name,” said campus sophomore Benjamin Leong in a text message.
Others noted that the issue of how campus should identify itself hinges on whether “Cal” or “Berkeley” is more prestigious.
Schmidt noted her community back home in Ohio is only familiar with the “Cal” name due to its use in college sports. In contrast, faculty members have stressed the academic prestige associated with “UC Berkeley.”
“When I am in other parts of the country or, particularly, abroad, the large majority of the prestige and name recognition of the campus arises from its academic successes as well as its political contributions (e.g. the free-speech movement) and very little comes from intercollegiate sports,” said campus lecturer Kenneth Worthy, who prefers “UC Berkeley” to “Cal,” in an email.
Some have speculated that the motivation for the task force is driven by funding for the athletics department through branding opportunities and licensing revenue from campus merchandise. However, Holmes has denied these allegations, stating that the task force is managed and funded by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs and that the athletics department did not ask for the task force to be formed.
Nevertheless, some faculty members worried the task force symbolizes a step toward a business model that is not suitable for an academic institution.
“CAL serves as a brand, with logos and merchandise to serve as subliminal reminders of athletics, team spirit, solidarity, etc.” said campus professor emerita of architecture Jill Stoner in an email. “But public universities should resist the idea of branding. This feeds into the corporatization of an institution that was never intended to be corporate.”