Throughout most of the country (but especially in the all-created-equal Midwest) when someone asks you where you went to school it's most likely to ascertain your football allegiance, whether it's "Roll Tide!" Alabama, "War Eagle!" Auburn, "Go Blue!" Michigan or those crazed Ohio State Buckeyes who will "fight all the way for the Scarlet and Gray of O-hi-o."
But that is not the way it is in the blue blood Northeast. As I quickly discovered when I moved to Boston more than 30 years ago, here old school ties are proxies for those carefully nurtured networks and ancient and honored pecking orders of class and privilege that have always distinguished this part of the country.
But maybe I am biased. I am a graduate of Eastern Michigan University. Eastern is a fine school whose more than 20,000 students had the advantage when I went there 35 years ago of being taught by full professors 98% of the time instead of by teaching assistants. But no one is going to mistake Eastern Michigan for an "elite" school or put Ypsilanti (the town where EMU is located) on anyone's map of leading centers of academic learning.
As an EMU alum, I am also sensitive to academic snobbishness, having gone to school just a few miles down Washtenaw Avenue from the world-famous University of Michigan whose home town, Ann Arbor, bills itself as "the Athens of the Midwest."
Yesterday, I learned on my way home on the MBTA Blue Line that at least one Boston area university has decided to strike a blow against Harvard Yard-style pomposity.
Suffolk University is a working person's school. Located on Boston's Beacon Hill it is perhaps best known by those of us who worked at the State House as the place where legislators and their young aides go at night to get their law degrees.
But Suffolk may soon be known for something else. An edgy advertising campaign launched this summer to set the school apart from its Boston competitors "takes a sharp poke at academic elites and snobby students," writes Taryn Luna in the Boston Globe. And with 34 colleges and universities that enroll more than a quarter million students in the Boston area alone the competition for Suffolk is steep.
One ad I saw on the subway portrayed Suffolk as "a university whose students have their nose to the grindstone instead of stuck up in the air."
Another described Suffolk as a school for students who "rely on their will to succeed, not their father's will."
Take that all you pretentious and pampered Boston Brahmins!
Other taglines that had me nodding and chuckling in agreement included:
* "We offer a degree program in rocking the boat."
* "A university shouldn't just help you get your foot in the door. It should help you kick it down."
* "Can someone climb the ladder of success in something other than penny loafers?"
* "For students who believe college is a privilege not a birthright."
On substance, Suffolk brags that it has produced more Massachusetts state judges on the bench today than Harvard, Yale and Columbia combined - though with so many conditions in that statement you have to believe copy writers were given a statistic that was badly in need of stretching.
The ad campaign was the school's first in eight years and was necessitated by a projected $11 million shortfall due to a "challenging enrollment environment" that produced a smaller-than-anticipated law school class, a slight decline in the ranks of their new undergraduates, and flat graduate enrollment, the Globe reported.
The ad campaign draws on the school's history serving local students who may not have received a university education otherwise, writes Luna, noting that Suffolk began in 1906 as an evening law school educating young immigrants in the parlor of founder Gleason L. Archer's Roxbury home.
"Suffolk came to be the place where smart, hard-working, dedicated people could get an education and do something with it," Suffolk President James McCarthy said. "These were people who came from the Boston neighborhoods. That's still the case."
Fifty-four percent of undergraduates are in-state residents, and 69 percent of alumni live in Massachusetts, says Luna.
Ever watchful for the reputations of Boston's elite institutions like Harvard and MIT, however, the Globe also notes that despite its hardscrabble, working-class roots Suffolk ranks among the more expensive universities in Massachusetts for undergraduates. That's provided you only look at "net" tuition costs that recalculate the high tuition charged elsewhere by accounting for the generous financial aid packages these heavily endowed universities (like Harvard and MIT) are able to provide students of modest means.
Nevertheless, "the voice that comes through in Suffolk's advertising is a defiant one, underscoring the university's commitment to hard work and impatience for moneyed dilettantism," writes Charlie Tyson of the Inside Higher Ed blog.
It is probably unwise to make too much of a single marketing campaign. Still, advertisers are famous for being canaries in the coal mine who are able to unfailingly intuit subterranean currents in the popular zeitgeist that can be captured and packaged to sell soap - or seats in a college classroom.
And when an institution as notoriously cautious and conservative as a university hires a New York advertising agency to re-brand itself as a bomb-throwing incendiary pitted against the plutocratic pretensions of our time, you begin to think that maybe the public's anger against inequality and unfairness runs deeper than first thought, and is lying in wait for some populist leader or party to mold into a force to be reckoned with.
How else to explain why an imposing 700-page tome, written by an obscure French economist, and with the uninviting title Capital in the 21st Century has become such a surprising runaway best seller -- unless it might be the book's simple message that the rich will always get richer and everyone else struggle to just to break even unless some one or some thing outside the capitalist free market system steps in to reshuffle the deck.