By Sean Wetselaar
“Ryerson is the innovation university.”
If you go to school here, you’ve heard those words. I don’t know who said them — neither do you, probably. But it was someone in the administration, and at the time you probably didn’t think too much about what exactly those words mean.
Today I’d like you to think about that. Because here’s the thing — they don’t mean anything, really.
Ryerson is an urban school, known for breaking the mould of dreary, uninventive universities. We like to do things differently, from hands-on learning to doing our best to put students in placements in the industries in which they will eventually work. That’s all fine and well, but we need to start to articulate that better than the word “innovative.”
Merriam-Webster defines innovation as “the introduction of something new” or a “new idea, method, or device.” But the context of innovation, and the grim procession of buzzwords which invariably follows, is often lost in talks about modern institutions.
As you’ll read in our news section this week, Ryerson was recently a part of the launch of the Centre for Workforce Innovation — a zone created by a group of 12 organizations, including the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
The launch is important because the organization does have the potential to make real progress towards getting students jobs. It’s focused on research and pilot projects that aid the Ontario economy. But you wouldn’t know it by its name — you wouldn’t know anything by its name.
And it goes beyond the naming of new organizations and partnerships. The words entrepreneur or innovation appear in a dizzying number of the school’s promotional materials and missives.
I understand that these phrases and ideas are central to the school’s branding. But for an institution dedicated to fostering education, basing your school’s brand on terms that are effectively meaningless is perhaps not the strongest strategy.
Think of it sort of like Daniel’s white Vans. The first dozen or so times one of your friends say, “Damn, Daniel!” in the next couple of days, it will be funny. You’ll laugh, and you’ll get the reference to the latest viral video that has taken over the internet.
But eventually, you’ll realize that your name isn’t actually Daniel. And that you’re not sure why the joke was funny in the first place. Words lose their meaning when they are repeated often enough.
Now I’m not discounting the value of the school’s brand. I understand the battle it has fought over the past decade or two for both national and international recognition as a legitimate university. And Ryerson has found its niche — the hands-on school that will get you a job. It is without a doubt important that it communicate that niche to the generations of high school students who, in the coming years, will be looking to post-secondary institutions for the next steps in their eudcation.
But Ryerson can absolutely communicate that niche without latching onto buzzwords and phrases.
As evidenced by the Centre for Workforce Innovation, this problem is not unique to our school. It is endemic of innumerable businesses, institutions and inventions that have struggled to define themselves in a busy, interconnected economy and world.
But we can, all of us, do better. Let’s not talk about innovative entrepreneurial zones focused on enhancing skills — and innovating some more. Let’s talk about the DMZ, which has successfully incubated dozens of student businesses and launched them into the real world.
So, Ryerson, don’t be innovative. Be inventive. And let’s add some meaning to our brand.