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The Consumer Republic: College Bowl

Last week, I spent a few days at the University of Texas at Austin as a guest of the department of advertising. The purpose of the visit was to spend time with students and share whatever wisdom I could muster in a public talk. But as it turned out, I was the one who felt like a student being oriented to a campus lifestyle that has changed dramatically since I last studied for midterms.
Campus is one thing the University of Texas has a lot of, far more than I could hope to cover in my short visit. With almost 50,000 students, it is the largest single campus in the nation.
During most of my stay, the PR gods were smiling: The temperature climbed to 80 degrees and the sky was not cloudy all day. Watching students in T-shirts and shorts dining and schmoozing under sun umbrellas in the courtyard of the student union, I felt like I was at a youth resort.
Or a mall. To enter the newly refurbished Texas Union, as the student center is called, is to step into an upscale franchise-lined marketplace with polished ceramic floors. Along with Wendy’s-a tenant before the renovation-a hungry student in the new, improved union might sup at the Cactus Cafe and Bar or, if looking for something a little lighter, pop into the Euro Bistro, whose entrance is flanked by a placard asking: “Have you had your panini today?” In one corner stands a free movie theater (what’s a mall without one?), while at the union’s heart is a large food court.
I was astounded-although I shouldn’t have been. Campuses all over the country have turned over student services to private businesses and tout brand names on school property, though not every school, I imagine, has achieved UT’s scale. In the competition for tuition dollars, lifestyle amenities are key marketing tools.
I subsequently learned there had been some opposition among the students to this blatant shilling, a queasiness about the propriety of lending the grounds of a public university to the promotion of national brands. In fact, UT is a “state supported” institution with only one-quarter of its budget supplied by the good taxpayers of Texas. For the rest, UT, like any private institution, is fighting for its share of students and its fiscal health. So it’s not surprising that the voices of the marketplace won. The campus no longer faces the student shopping strip; it mirrors it. The boundary between town and gown has blurred.
Later that evening, while riding in a minivan full of advertising doctoral students to a Texas barbecue mecca in the Hill Country, I expressed my amazement at the union’s consumer delights.
“Oh, then you should see Gardiner’s Gym!” my hosts exclaimed. The renovated gym is the latest addition to the UT good life. I had to check out the rock-climbing wall! The handball and squash courts! The spas in the locker rooms! The students spoke of the gym with a mixture of wonderment, pleasure and disdain, as if even they found the whole setup a bit over the top. I went. It had everything a corpus sanus might desire.
By the entrance is the Sports Cafe. Near the handball courts is a phalanx of treadmills and Stairmasters lined up before a bank of TVs. But these are nothing compared to the main workout room, with enough machines to ensure that no muscle in the student body remains untouched. In the arena, bleachers are stacked above three full-sized basketball courts, while in the annex there are four more, ringed by a half-mile running track. In the Wellness Center, an on-duty masseuse waits for stressed-out students to come in for a $24, 30-minute massage.
By the way, Gardiner’s Gym is just for the general students. A separate multimillion-dollar facility for the real athletes is over by the football stadium.
Do not misunderstand me. UT students are not a bunch of brain-dead mall rats. Beneath the placid surface of manicured grounds and gleaming new amenities is a campus embroiled in affirmative-action controversies and racial tensions brought on by a professor’s remarks. The students seemed serious and hardworking. The faculty told tales of kids with full-time class loads who worked 40 hours a week as store clerks.
Yet I was struck by the comfortable blandness of the campus scene. Here is a student body far more racially diverse than the one I remember, its members attired in dress codes of their own making. Yet if I try to remember how they looked, all I recall is a well-scrubbed blur.
Where is the skeptical, savvy youth so resistant to marketers’ stratagems? So hip to the brand-name hype? In the classrooms, I heard a lot of resistance to advertising and marketing ploys. But what I saw suggested that the students are quite at home in their labeled, amenity-filled world-as well they should be. After all, it is the only home available to them. So much for disaffected youth.