Surrendering to Mediocrity

Call me a disgruntled worker—I’m OK with it. The unhappiness with my workplace hasn’t come about because I thought I was screwed over, or because I’m just plain old and nothing makes me happy any longer—neither is true, except that I am just plain old.

I’m disgruntled because I’ve finally grown tired of our institution’s determined march toward mediocrity. This includes a willingness to do nothing, or at least do nothing that has any imagination, nothing that is bold, nothing that is earth-shaking or nothing that even smacks of daring. And I’ll lay this banner of mediocrity and ineptitude almost entirely on our Board of Trustees and their milque-toast leadership.

Of course, what I’m specifically talking about is changing the name to Yellowstone College. As most folk know on campus (and beyond to some extent), I am the broken record that keeps on reminding people of the need for a name change whenever there is talk of how to promote the college and get it more exposure. I’ve sat through several meetings where such discussions come up, and everything under the sun is discussed at length except a name change.

Northwest College—a school in northwest Wyoming about 70 miles from the border of Yellowstone National Park (that’s the mandatory tagline that goes with our name so people know where the hell we are)—is a place where we love to tout how different we are from other junior colleges, yet when it comes down to planning (or lack of) we tend to defer to what everyone else is doing. We talk about being unique, but the only thing truly unique about Northwest College is its location—something we’ve never had any control over to begin with. If Northwest College were in Paducah, Iowa, it would be just another, average community college with some obscure, innocuous, generic, and sadly forgettable name. But, instead we are located at the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park with an obscure, innocuous, generic, and sadly forgettable name.

To my knowledge, the talk of a name change—from Northwest College to Yellowstone College—became serious in October of 2018 (four years ago) when former college president Stefani Hicswa sent me a brief email that simply and only said, “I heard a rumor you are promoting Yellowstone College. Tell me more…”

From that time on, the idea of a name change has been seriously kicked around, but mostly just kicked down the road for another time. Four years have passed and no decision has been made—to change the name or not change the name. As an old friend of mine once said, “They don’t know whether to shit or steal third.”

The name-change continues to be a no-brainer and yet the Board of Trustees continues to treat it like a complex problem—overthinking it and giving way to much consideration to the “old guard” who prefers mediocrity and the status quo of pounding a square peg into a round hole.

Over coffee a friend pointed out to me that placing all the blame on the Board of Trustees might not be warranted in saying, “A leader can not be successful without the support of a bold board, an open-minded community, a faculty willing to do things differently & students hungry to consume the product.” He went on to say that our failure to react is not unique to our local community either, that as a society we need to redefine today’s successes in saying, “We cannot re-create our past successes we need to create new ones based on the realities of today & tomorrow.”

Meanwhile the school’s enrollment is flat and remains way below its numbers from say, fifteen years ago. A couple resident halls remain closed and the faculty numbers and programs of study are significantly less. Further, the competition for prospective students in the future grows more intense.

After 31 years, I’m over it and it’s time to move on if I can. Again, call me a disgruntled worker. That said, NWC has paid me fairly and I have tried to rise up to my net worth. We are square, period. And when the time comes for me to go, no goodbye party, social, gathering, etc. is needed—nor wanted. I’ll leave as quietly as I arrived, insuring I don’t disturb this sleepy community of mediocrity.

Absurdity from a Local Oligarch

It was a laughable presentation at the recent Northwest College Board of Trustees meeting when community leader and Powell Tribune owner Dave Bonner stood up before the Gods of Northwest College (a.k.a. Board of Trustees) to challenge the idea of renaming the college.

Sadly, Bonner’s new plan is nothing more than a new spin on our worn-out, vanilla moniker.

His solution? “Northwest College: On Yellowstone’s Door” with the words “at Powell and Cody” awkwardly included somewhere in his proposed word salad. It all struck me as a textbook illustration of beating a dead horse. Might as well include our zip code too.

 

Bonner spoke of the additional cost associated with a name change, but failed to mention how the college dedicated an extra $80-grand almost three years ago on a new marketing plan for good-old, multi-directional, but-we’re-not-in-Washington-state, Northwest College. How did that go? I didn’t see any results from that little investment. So now Bonner is telling us that “Northwest College: the gateway to Yellowstone” and including “Powell • Cody” will make it all less confusing? That’s the best we can come up with—doubling down on vanilla? Wow!

If our name is as great as he declares, surely it can stand on its own without a clumsy clarification statement attached to it. And history has proven over and over, that’s not the case—not when there’s dozens of other schools out there using “Northwest” in their names as well.

Let’s apply this “Bonner Logic” to that popular television series…“Yellowstone: mostly in Montana, but some in Wyoming.”

Or, consider that Major League Baseball team in Cleveland. “The Cleveland Indians: Guardians of the Land.”

Or how about that pro football team in Washington? “The Washington Redskins: Commanders of the Capitol.”

Yeah, those are much better.

The publisher’s antiquated thinking was also endorsed by his Zoom-based, posse-of-two, affluent Foundation officers and directors who basically said, “Yeah, what Dave said.” Added to that, Bonner provided more “evidence” for not changing the name because all the old guys in his morning coffee klatch said it was a bad idea too.

I was tempted to stand up and shout, “Well, the old guys in my coffee klatch think the name should have been changed to Yellowstone College back in ’89 when ‘Community’ was deleted from the name!” So, there’s that.

Bonner referenced that time as well saying that the Board of Trustees also considered Yellowstone College back then, but didn’t do it; as if there was a greater wisdom present in the ’89 Board of Trustees than today’s.

No doubt, it will be disappointing if the Board of Trustees heeds the vapid rationale from this Powell oligarch and his Foundation cronies. But, beyond disappointing, it will be downright embarrassing.

A Case Study in Higher Education Ambivalency

A small modification to NWC’s current logo.

While Northwest College wrestles with all things related to the problem of diminishing state funds and enrollment, several ideas are being tossed about the campus designed to offset these critical times of financial crisis. Almost every proposed solution has to do with cutting or merging positions by means of reorganizing or diluting in such a way that cutting and merging are facilitated.

Sadly, as we consider how to keep on doing what we’ve been doing with less, one idea that hasn’t received serious consideration (to my knowledge) is the idea of renaming/rebranding the college—a college with a name so ambiguous, so easily forgettable that it would never be missed.

The idea of “Northwest” in its name for the college came from a time when the school (or any of the other junior colleges) never looked beyond its own state’s borders—a time when the target population was mostly Wyoming based. But, as we know the times have changed, and relying on a student population that is Wyoming based is extremely short-sighted and fiscally irresponsible.

Think about it, “Northwest College.”

Is that in Washington somewhere?

No, it’s in Northwest Wyoming.

Anything else in the area that would be more unique, more recognizable in terms of association?

Well, there’s this place called Yellowstone National Park.

Is there any other institution of higher education using that moniker?

Nope.

This has innocently turned out to be a ripe textbook marketing-identity case study (or nightmare). The current school name is so timid regarding its location that when the college updated its logotype back in 2004, they added “Wyoming” underneath the school’s name. Might as well have attached the zip code too.

Even people in our own state often refer to us as “the college in Powell.” And, when they do use a name, they still get it wrong in saying “Northwest Community College.” Hell, one of my students used that old name in a short essay he wrote the other day.

Yellowstone College. It’s a slam dunk, a no-brainer, but you know, that would cost money in rebranding and whatever else associated with such a deliberate and obvious change. Nevermind that when the college moved it’s website and email address from www.northwestcollege.edu to www.nwc.edu, there was plenty of reprinting of various forms, letterheads and business cards to keep our printshop busy in the year that followed. Basically, we’ve gone through dress rehearsals like this before and barely blinked.

Saddest of all, the college used to be called Northwest Community College up until 1989. As near as I can tell, sometime before that a movement evolved (clearly “movers and shakers”) and managed to get the school renamed to Northwest College (sans “Community”). Supposedly that made things a lot better. Talk about failed rebranding testimonies.

As gutting of the institution’s public relations office continues—from nine staffers in 2010, down to six in 2018, nothing would boost enrollment numbers more than a name associated with one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. What other institution of higher learning is more entitled given the East Entrance is just over 70 miles from our campus. Instead of explaining to the whole world where and what Northwest College is, Yellowstone College would wipe away all of that unnecessary, utilitarian, and no-one-is-listening-anyway language.

Nevertheless, like all of my ideas, this one is also a bit too bold for our milquetoast institution of higher learning. So, as long as we’re keeping “Northwest College,” perhaps we can at least poke a little fun at ourselves by printing up some of those bumper stickers that ask, “Where the Hell is Northwest College?”

Postscript: Along with the gutting of the public relations office, just over a year ago the financial crisis was also the rationale stated for the sinking of the student newspaper which did as much—if not more—to promote the college.