A tale of two subcultures: The UBC Bookstore vs. “UBC Central”

August is supposed to be a slow month for activism on campus. Not this year. Emails started popping up on my screen about a recently announced decision of the UBC administration to rebrand the Bookstore. It was to be named  “UBC Central”. The reaction of an otherwise sleepy UBC campus was swift and visceral: “What the hell is “UBC Central”? A Greyhound bus(t) station?” A few weeks later, I witnessed an equally visceral counter-reaction. It was at a meeting of the Board of Governors. The two solitudes were never more apparent on our campus.

The director of the bookstore shrugged off my question regarding the petition, affirming that “only” 888 people, half of whom were not from campus, had signed it. The chair reassured her of his confidence in her team and in the administration to make the best business decision. We were also reminded that the cash generated by the bookstore serves to support the academy, and hence the need to promote its business further. Another –disarmingly candid– Board member expressed surprise to learn that so many people were interested enough in the branding issue to bother with such a petition in the middle of the summer.  We were also informed that open houses and other surveying conducted at UBC Vancouver in September have yet to find any indication of strong feeling about the proposed name change.

Yet, every staff member, every student and every faculty member I talk to about this issue expresses dismay, shock, even disgust with such a decision. The petition includes the signatures of at least one dean, one former associate VP-academic, one former member of the Board of Governors, and one former senior advisor to the President. Here are some of the comments received.

* This rebranding initiative is both insulting to the intellectual mandate of a university and typical of the money-wasting initiatives around campus.

* A university without a bookstore is like a pub with no beer.

* I wouldn’t like to visit a place called UBC Central. I think the word ‘Bookstore’ should stay.  UBC Central sounds like a place you have to go to run errands, not a place you would like to visit because you belong to an academic community.

* “Central” is for trains; bookstore is for books.

* Whoever thought of this should be punted.

* How can UBC justify contributing to the marginalization of books?  This name suggests a train station.

* The name “UBC Central” gives no clue as to what is actually being named. My guess would be a bus station!  Let’s keep the UBC Bookstore–we are, after all, a University!

* UBC Central sounds like a railway station or the President’s office not a vital community academic enterprise which is what the bookstore is.

* I find the new name vague and confusing; everyone knows that university bookstores have other products. Anyway, we need a good bookstore as so many independents are closing.

* The UBC Library has become a “Learning Centre” and now the Bookstore is to be given a vacuous placeholder name, “UBC Central.” I thought we were trying to be a “world class” (gag) university. Poor parochial Stanford (from which I graduated) and Notre Dame (from which I’ve just returned): They only have bookstores, not “centrals.” This whole trend merely makes us look academically pathetic.

What gives? What could explain this distinctive cultural divide that I get to witness, endure and sometimes abide by, in my position on the Board of Governors?

Bridging such a divide must have been the very “raison-d’être” for the creation of positions for faculty, staff and student representation on the Board. It is the reason why I keep calling –with a “consistency” that keeps being derided and scoffed, I must say– for faculty representation on the Boards of the UBC Property Trust and of IMANT.

Another case in point is the reaction of this faculty member who communicated to us her outrage upon seeing a person not affiliated with UBC negotiating the purchase of 7 south campus housing units at once. It is not clear to me whether this incident would get the same reaction from those who are focused on maximizing the revenues from the university lands.

Boards ought to be aware of the lines of thought, convictions, hopes and aspirations of all their stakeholders. They need to listen and hear all perspectives on each issue before making consequential decisions. And sometimes,  they should expect to be … surprised.

This said, it seems that in this particular case,  the decision to re-brand the Bookstore is for the administration to make and not the Board.

On the positive side, administrations need not be always wary of dissenting petitions. Indeed, if the name change for the bookstore stands, then they will have the petition to thank for the free publicity it generated for the new brand. Thanks to this movement, hundreds of people on campus and elsewhere will now know where to go for textbooks, e-books, notebooks, i-books, puzzle books, regular books … and T-shirts. “UBC Central”!

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2 Responses to A tale of two subcultures: The UBC Bookstore vs. “UBC Central”

  1. Greg Martin says:

    You’re right on target when you exhibit the UBC Bookstore renaming misstep as a symptom of two subcultures!

    Can you go further: can you describe aspects of those subcultures that explains the observed phenomenon? – You yourself ask the question, and I was looking forward to a proposed answer.

    • Ghoussoub says:

      Oh Greg, I wish I had the answers. The puzzle is that I know smart and well-meaning people on “both sides of the aisle”. I did however venture a possible explanation stemming from people having different perspectives (even values), and hence the need for adequate representation of all stakeholders. We are not there yet! The main reason being that faculty, students and staff are sometimes seen to be in conflict of interest regarding issues, while appointed governors are considered to be at arms-length — besides having a certain expertise.

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