‘Unpretentious’ label draws student criticism

Josh Goodman

Quick — what word would you use to describe Whitman’s culture? A new theme appearing on Whitman’s web site since January suggests “unpretentious,” or more specifically, “unpretentious Northwest culture.”

The use of the word “unpretentious” stems from a broader effort to differentiate Whitman from the hundreds of other liberal arts schools in the United States. Last summer, the college, with a grant from an alumnus, hired Zoom Marketing of Palo Alto, Calif. to survey students, parents, alumni, faculty and staff and work with the college to create a theme to describe and differentiate Whitman. The result: “The premier liberal arts college that combines academic excellence with an unpretentious Northwest culture and an engaging community.”

Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Tony Cabasco said the goal was to emphasize a combination of attributes that was unique about Whitman, rather than something that could be easily found elsewhere.

“There’s a lot of things we could say about Whitman where you could substitute Colorado College, Pomona, Occidental, Reed,” Cabasco said. “What’s unique about Whitman is the combination. It’s one of the few places where you can have the intense challenging academics but still have the unpretentious, laid back, friendly culture.”

Ruth Wardwell, director of communications, said that the idea behind the college’s theme was to instantly conjure an image of Whitman.

“I think the broader challenge for Whitman and every other liberal arts college is how do you describe yourself in an instant or create an instant perception,” she said. “I love when I talk to students, and I ask students ‘Why did you come to Whitman?’ We hear many of the words from the focus group over and over and over.”

The word “unpretentious” seems to have hit a sour note for many students, however.

“I kind of feel like it’s a little pretentious in itself, like ‘Oh, no, we’re above that,'” said first-year Jamie Edison. “I don’t want to say that it’s a red flag, but it kind of sticks out. It sounds like they’re trying a little too hard to sound unpretentious.”

Sophomore Gabriella Friedman said she didn’t have a problem with the wording.

“It’s hard to find one word that describes the entire student body,” she said. “I do think it’s true that Whitman has an engaging community, but I think unpretentious is a vague word, which is probably why they use it.”

Senior John Loranger, who participated in one of Zoom Marketing’s phone surveys, said he preferred the other phrases that he rated.

“I really liked ‘relaxed,’ ‘laid back,’ and ‘easygoing,'” he said. “I think the problem people have with unpretentious is that it’s saying, ‘We are brilliant and we know it but don’t worry, we’re not going to rub it in your face.'”

Loranger, who is also ASWC vice president, said that other members of ASWC have talked about the use of the word “unpretentious,” mostly in a negative light, but don’t plan to take any action regarding it.

Whitman’s administration is well aware of criticism that calling the college unpretentious is, well, pretentious.

“We have had that conversation,” said Vice President of Development and College Relations John Bogley. “The word unpretentious means something specific and to use it is certainly not its opposite.”

Bogley also emphasized that the official wording was “unpretentious Northwest culture,” a broader description. He mentioned his own experience as an undergraduate student, when he transferred from Colgate University, a liberal arts college in New York, to Whitman. He instantly noticed a change from Colgate’s competitive culture, where people tried to outdo each other, to Whitman’s more collaborative feel.

Despite the emphasis on using “unpretentious” primarily as a descriptor of Northwest culture, several examples on the web site go beyond that. This includes references to graduates as “ethical, unpretentious leaders” and to the campus as “an unpretentious, residential campus.”

The way “unpretentious” is perceived has to do with context, too. President George Bridges said that while he’s heard the complaint that calling the college unpretentious is pretentious, the word works particularly well when he can provide examples.

“In many cases, I find myself giving those examples in public speeches,” he said in an e-mail. “It’s tough to include examples on the limited amount of space on the web site.”

Wardwell also said that the word worked better when spoken.

“I’ve come to understand that when you say the word, it’s a different response than when you read the word,” she said. “If I’m listening to someone describe it as unpretentious, it’s okay, but when you see it written that way, it’s like, ‘Is this pretentious?'”

Still, the college plans to move forward with its theme. The Office of Admission will release a new viewbook and other admissions materials this summer, which place emphasis on Whitman’s “academic excellence”, “engaging community” and “unpretentious Northwest culture”.

The Whitman web site, through a separate grant, will get an update this fall that further incorporates each of the three key phrases. Bogley thinks that the clearer description of what a Whitman education and experience entail will help prospective students better understand Whitman, and ultimately help students in the job market.

“People who are hiring you and your classmates in the years to come will have a better understanding of the value of a Whitman education,” he said. “Hopefully, out in the working world, people will say, ‘You went to Whitman?  That’s a great school.'”