University craziness of the week: George Washington University goes Disney

February 11, 2020 • 10:30 am

This article, appearing two weeks ago at Academe Blog, an organ of the respectable American Association of University Professors, could only have been written by a professor with tenure. And so it was, by Dane Kennedy, identified as “the Elmer Louis Kayser Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University.”

Tenure is required to write such a piece is because it is a sharp (and well deserved) critique of what a very good university, George Washington University (GWU) is doing to its faculty, staff, and overall campus climate. The good bad officials at that school have decided to let Walt Disney corporate values run GWU. Click on the screenshot to read the short and horrifying article:

An excerpt:

The George Washington University faculty and staff ain’t got no culture. Or worse, we’ve got a negative culture. This was the verdict of the Disney Institute, which the president of our university commissioned last year to assess the culture on our campus. Fortunately, the institute, which is the “professional development and external training arm of The Walt Disney Company,” has a remediation plan. It has designed workshops to teach us the cultural “values” and “service priorities” we evidently require.

. . . Our president is rumored to have forked over three to four million dollars to the Disney Institute to improve our culture (he refuses to reveal the cost). A select group of faculty and staff, those identified as opinion leaders, are being offered all-expenses paid trips to the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando “to gain first-hand insight into Disney’s approach to culture.” For everyone else, the university is conducting culture training workshops that run up to two hours. All staff and managers are required to attend. Faculty are strongly “encouraged” to participate, and some contract faculty, who have little job security, evidently have been compelled to do so.

I attended one of these workshops. It was a surreal experience. About a hundred mostly sullen university employees—maintenance workers, administrative staff, faculty members, and more—filled a ballroom. Two workshop leaders strained to gin up the crowd’s enthusiasm with various exhortations and exercises, supplemented by several slickly produced videos. The result was a cross between a pep rally and an indoctrination camp.

We were introduced at the beginning of the workshop to the university’s brand new slogan: “Only at GW, we change the world, one life at a time.” Hold on. We change the world only at GW? And we achieve this absurd ambition how? The answer, it turns out, is pretty vacuous—by being nice. “Care,” we were told, is one of our three “Service Priorities.” We were given “Service Priorities” table-tent cards, conveniently sized for our pocketbooks and billfolds so we can whip them out whenever we needed to remind ourselves how we change the world. These cards offer a series of declarative statements—pabulum, some might say—about our “care” priorities. Here’s a sample: “I support a caring environment by greeting, welcoming, and thanking others.” To help us care for others, the university has established a “positive vibes submission” website, where we “can send a positive vibe to someone.” It was hard to detect many positive vibes in the workshop itself.

In response to the slogan, “Only at GW, we change the world, one life at a time” (a mantra cribbed from an old Jewish saying), my only response is “WTF??” Did they have Play-Doh, puppies, and balloons at this workshop?  It goes on, but you can read the rest for yourself. The peroration, which is good:

Lastly, we were introduced to “Our GW Values”—“ours” only in the sense that they were being imposed on us. One might think that our president would be interested in promoting and honoring the values that are specific to our mission as a university, such as innovative research, teaching excellence, critical inquiry, and new ideas. Think again. As crafted by the Disney Institute and its administrative acolytes, “Our GW Values” are “integrity,” “collaboration,” “courage,” “respect,” “excellence,” “diversity,” and “openness.” All worthy values, to be sure, but is it possible to offer a more generic and innocuous set of standards?

The GW culture initiative can be summed up in two words: Mickey Mouse.

This is not just the infantilization of students, but the infantilization of an entire university—lock, stock and barrel. It’s reprehensible, risible, and should be mocked. Which I’ve just done. But hey, if you’re one of the lucky ones invited to an all-expenses-paid gig at Disney World, how can you resist?

And if you want verification, here’s a 2019 article about this nonsense in the student newspaper, the GW Hatchet (click on screenshot):

h/t: Reese

45 thoughts on “University craziness of the week: George Washington University goes Disney

  1. Fan though I am (or have been) of Disney, I can’t think why anyone would choose them for a consulting partner outside their industry of entertainment and customer service. Perhaps that’s it; GW has decided it’s a service industry. To be fair, though, this is probably the same pablum they would get from an consulting company that deals with “corporate culture”.

    1. I should add that I would have an issue with an executive of an institution that doesn’t know what its mission or culture is or should be. The problem is not who they asked, but that they had to ask.

    2. This was “professional development and external training arm of The Walt Disney Company”. That doesn’t mean it’s bad per se. The name “Disney” immediately triggers a lot of associations in most people’s minds, most likely to do with children’s entertainment and. It’s not a great name for a company that does professional development.

      Having said that, you are not going to be able to change an organisation’s culture by getting them into a room a hundred people at a time and giving them a pep talk. It’s got to come either from the organisation itself and from the organisation’s leaders.

      Unfortunately, as DrBrydon observes above, the people in charge are clueless.

      1. Any huge and successful company that employs a lot of people have arguably tackled professional development within their organization and won. This gives them the confidence to consider productizing that knowledge. It is up to the market to decide what that’s worth. I have my doubts but I can see how guileless, clueless university administrators could be taken in by their offer, especially with enticements (trips to Disney World, cruises, etc.) for the customer’s decision-maker. It may well be that Disney’s ability to provide such widely desirable enticements, at little cost to themselves, caused them to enter the consulting business.

      2. Way back when I was a professor and academic administrator, I tried to use the following as guidance – “Leaders do not bring vision to an organization; rather, they extract a vision from it.” William Robinson, Leading People from the Middle.

      3. “It’s not a great name for a company that does professional development.”

        I guess I’m missing something. How so? Is it because you perceive the sound of the word “Disney” aesthetically unpleasing to the ear? What is an example of a great name for such a company>

      4. Having worked for eight university presidents (and two interim ones)at Chicago State University for 35 years, the ones who wanted to change the logo or the university tagline were the worst, as a ‘fresh coat of paint’ was usually all the had to offer.

        It’s expensive, as you have to collect all *old* printed materials (letterheads, envelopes, business cards), as well as all the new stuff.

  2. This one’s more Brave New World than Nineteen Eighty-Four.

    Chrissake, I think I’d rather put up with the haughtiness of a maître d’ or sommelier at an overpriced French restaurant than this card-carrying, enforced Disney-World “niceness.” In its way, it’s less condescending.

  3. Company management is hit daily with offers from training and motivation companies to fire up their employees. They are presented as sort of corporate “get rich quick” schemes, which they are in a sense. There may be some good ones out there but it is hard to tell which ones.

    It is clearly a lucrative business. I’m guessing a company like Disney has this down. They have their theme parks as enticements to “decision-makers” and they leverage the respect and goodwill people have for their company and its products.

    The situation reported by Kennedy’s article is testament to the desperation and vacuity of GW’s management. They evidently have no ideas of their own for improving their university so they spend it on training programs for suckers.

    1. Agreed. The GWU prez swallowed the pitch, hook line & sinker, and clearly Disney gets the payoff on a couple levels. Maybe the students will object to this misuse of their tuition & GWUs endowment. Yay for academic freedom at least.

      1. For some reason I’m reminded of the difference between the no-nonsense announcer of the Apollo countdown and launch (Jack King) and the later PR-slick announcements attending space shuttle launches.

        Will the Disneyfication of NASA be next? Or has it already happened?

    1. Unfortunately this crap is spreading rapidly – down my way we have had several such events from various consultants (about being nice to each other I believe-they are best avoided) which while not Disney look pretty Micky Mouse

    1. And that goes back lots more years, and to Canada before 1960 with the same, discussing Uxxx:

      “What’s their yyy program like?”
      “Mickey Mouse, we’re way better!”

  4. There are some who could use those pocket cards, tho.

    At my former institution, there was an instructor in my dept (Biol Sci) who in particular irony to this thread was a big Mickey Mouse fan, and made her students aware of that (facepalm). My son was an undergrad there (his choice, not mine), and wound up in her section. One morning he sees her on campus and says, “Good morning Dr. C,” to which she replied, “Who the fuck are you?”

    That was the laat Bio class he took – he’s now an atty.

    1. The rejoinder ““Who the fuck are you?” to someone’s wishing you a “good morning” sounds like something the jazz drumming great Buddy Rich (aka “Mister Warmth”) would say. I’m guessing ol’ Buddy wouldn’t’ve made for much of a convivial college professor either.

  5. Maybe they could skip nice for a couple of minutes, whatever it takes to fire the president for wasting the money.

    The worst example of this that I personally experienced was an order to attend a three day course taking place at our facility in Newport News, Va. At the time I was in Okinawa, Japan. So that is nearly two days travel (4 round trip) for a three day worthless management class. Three long days sitting in a class room, jet lagged to beat hell. Fortunately I retired three years later.

    1. BTW, this rahr rah team building is what the Walmart corporation used to make their employees submit to every day. (In addition to the corporations union busting, of course.)

      The Apple Store near me also used to have store opening movitivation time. We could listen while we were in line to enter.

  6. The corporation I worked for would hold similar sessions. Sometimes speakers, sometimes movies or company employees doing the presentations. People who work for the government tell the same story. Part of corporate and government culture.

    Don’t like seeing it has spread to universities.

  7. The George Washington University faculty and staff ain’t got no culture. Or worse, we’ve got a negative culture. This was the verdict of the Disney Institute, which the president of our university commissioned last year to assess the culture on our campus.

    I’d like to know what the motivation was for commissioning the assessment. Was there a morale problem? Was the university underperforming in some way? Did the president commission it because he couldn’t think of anything else to do that day?

    Anyway, it’s fortunate that he did commission the assessment because it sounds like there is a real problem. Now how to fix it…

    Fortunately, the institute, which is the “professional development and external training arm of The Walt Disney Company,” has a remediation plan.

    That certainly is fortunate. An organisation has identified an issue at the university and, coincidentally, it has a plan (that presumably you pay for) to resolve the issue.

    Jesus Christ, it’s the oldest trick in the book.

  8. While absolutely terrible, remember that GW likes terrible slogans. Remember “Something happens here”? We don’t know what exactly, but there’s something happening…

  9. This sort of touchy-feely business crap has been around for decades. It’s doubtless very lucrative for the companies that offer it.

    About four decades ago some new whizz-kid CEO of my organisation decided everyone should go on a ‘win-win’ course. I honestly can’t attest to the contents, other than to note that it made absolutely no difference to anyone’s behaviour – the assholes kept on assholing as usual. I can’t attest to the course contents because I successfully pleaded ‘pressure of work’ and swapped my turn with others until the CEO was replaced and everyone lost interest. I regard this as a minor victory for rationality. 😎


Leave a Reply