Sunday, August 30, 2009

Paw City Trail

What is the image above? I asked about a dozen people this question and here are some of their answers: A jack-o-lantern; a map of Portsmouth; birds on a wire; a buffalo with a devil’s tail, a prawn on steroids. About half said they could see absolutely nothing.

The image was made from a stencil and can be found on sidewalks in downtown Portsmouth. But what is it an image of? I tried to figure that out for a couple of weeks as I took my daily constitutional down 2nd Street. The more I looked down at the image, from various angles, the more it looked, as some have told me since, like nothing in particular. Instead of representing something, it looked like an abstract image, maybe of a modern painting that had hung on the wall of the Phantom Art Gallery, on 2nd Street. I wondered whether it was a symbol of some group or secret organization. I even wondered whether it was an occult sign put there by those locals who are into mind work and psychic readings. I wondered whether it might be a Shawnee cave drawing depicting a bison with the tail of a beaver. Or was it just some creature that was all gaping maw and no body?

I finally went into one of the antique shops on 2nd St. and asked the proprietor if he knew what the blue image on the sidewalk in front of the entrance of his shop was. He seemed embarrassed and a bit apologetic when he answered.

“It’s a bear’s paw,” he said.

“A what?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Shawnee State put it there.”

“With your permission?”

“Yes,” he said, blushing slightly.

Then it dawned on me. This was probably part of the Shawnee rebranding program, which I had written about in River Vices. Under the open records law, I had requested the figures of how much the university had spent so far on the rebranding. The figure I was given was just over $250,000. By the time the university had complied with my request, I had already posted on July 6, “Rebranding Shawnee State U.,” without the $250,000 figure. I did not think I would be writing about the rebranding again, at least not anytime soon, but that’s the point of advertising: they hound you and you can’t ignore the product they're advertising, especially when it is down on the sidewalk staring up at you like a . . . Well, like a cootie under a microscope.

It occurred to me as I’m sure it has to some people at SSU that the bear isn’t the product. Shawnee State is not in the business of marketing bears; it is in the business of educating students. Then how can SSU justify spending, so far, $250,670 on this rebranding, which apparently includes this Shawnee bear paw that nobody sees as a bear paw?

The contract that SSU has with the marketing firm Stamats was signed by President Rita Rice Morris and Vice President for Finance Elinda C. Boyles on October 23, 2008. President Morris’s salary is $191,758 and V.P. Boyle’s is $114, 656, which combined is $306,414. I know from my years at SSU that both Morris and Boyles are very capable administrators, with many responsibilities, but there are only 24 hours in a day and only so much they can do in a day, so any time, however brief, they put into this rebranding project takes away time that they could be spending on something else, like helping improve the product SSU is offering, which is higher education, not bears. In addition to the $250,670, it’s costing the taxpayers to have these two top administrators, not to mention the faculty, involved in the rebranding, adding to the hidden costs. And if SSU is going to spend a quarter of a million dollars on rebranding, shouldn’t the paw look at least enough like a paw that maybe one of ten people who happened to look down at the sidewalk would recognize it as a paw, and that one out of a hundred might associate the paw with Shawnee State, and not with buffalo, birds, a map, or a prawn, and whatever else this Rorschach-like image might suggest to people?

If SSU wants to leave its paw mark on the Portsmouth area, I suggest it do it by encouraging its employees and particularly its faculty to become more involved politically instead of leaving it to the lowlifes who all too often end up in public office in Portsmouth’s city government. The way these lowlifes get into office initially is too often by being appointed rather than elected to city council. They are appointed by other council members who themselves too often got their start by being appointed to office by city council. Council members do not always finish their four-year terms because they are recalled by angry voters or they resign before they can be recalled, as the president of city council Howard Baughman did recently. He resigned because he knew that otherwise he would be recalled, giving voters a chance to vote for his successor, but because he resigned the crooked city council would choose his successor. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped, but it won’t be until there is more new blood in Portsmouth politics. Shawnee State employs people who live in Portsmouth. As educated, ethical professionals, they have an obligation to be involved politically in the community they live in, and not just by voting, which is not to suggest that voting isn't a very important act.

Strickland Center for Municipal Studies

I have another suggestion. The university could establish a Municipal Studies Program, perhaps named in honor of Governor Ted Strickland, a former adjunct professor at SSU. The emphasis on such a program could be on the municipality of Portsmouth itself, on its economic, social and political problems in particular, and how those problems might be alleviated. (Reducing council terms to two years would be a start.) Too many American universities are isolated from the communities they are located in. At some universities some faculty have a professional interest in places far away and long ago, but almost no interest in the community they live or are at least are employed in, here and now. I was so involved in university politics, not out of desire but out of necessity, that I didn’t know a cob from a Kalb or a Greg from an Eddie Bauer. At worst, faculties in some public universities adopt an ivory tower attitude, with a disdain for everything local, especially local government.

Paw City Trail

Such a Municipal Studies Program would need to establish independence from the local developers, lawyers, and businessmen who control Portsmouth, as well from members of the SSU board of trustees (sometimes one and the same) who view the university as a generously convenient place to unload distressed residential and commercial property. Maybe there could be a designated walking trail in Portsmouth. Boston has a Freedom Trail, which is marked by a red line that pedestrians can follow with a map in hand. “Let’s see, this is North End, so that must be the steeple of the Old North Church where Paul Revere hung the lanterns.” In Portsmouth we could have a Paw City Trail of SSU presidential houses marked by stenciled bear paws on the sidewalk. Such a trail could begin on the southeast corner of Waller and 3rd Street, where the university was far advanced with plans to build a new president’s house at a cost, as I recall, of about what this rebranding campaign may end up costing SSU before it's through. The architect, Michael Hasara, had submitted a design to the President’s House Committee, on which I was the faculty representative, and everything was set to go when the Chair of the Committee, SSU Trustee George Clayton, pulled the rug out at the last minute, and SSU instead bought at a ridiculously inflated price of $400,000 from a doctor a totally unsuitable house 3.5 miles from campus, about as far from campus as you get and still be in the city, a house that constitutes an architectural scandal in the history of the university. What with renovations and buttressing to keep it from sliding down the hill it's on, that house cost the university far more than $400,000. The bear paw trail from the corner of Waller and 3rd to 3060 Camelot Drive would pass the old Thatcher house at 1828 Franklin Boulevard that SSU bought from a former trustee at an inflated price as a temporary president’s house while the one on the corner of Waller and 3rd was being built, which of course it never was. A Municipal Studies Program might help end such shenanigans by monitoring political and economic developments, and shady deals, more carefully. Where would the money for such a program come from in these tough economic times? If a quarter of a million dollars and counting can be found for rebranding, maybe the money can be found for a new academic program.

Cat’s Paws

A Municipal Studies Program might help put an end not only to the bear paw business, but to the cat paw business as well. In LaFontaine’s fable, a shrewd monkey gets a cat to use his paw to pull chestnuts out of the fire. The monkey gets the chestnuts, the cat gets burned. A cat’s paw is someone, a tool or a dupe, who is used by another person for his own purposes. There are more cat’s paws in Portsmouth than there are prawn in Piketon, and they gravitate to politics like flies to garbage. The monkeys will not keep their cat’s paws to themselves but they must get them placed in or appointed to positions where they can be of most use. Don’t confuse cat’s paws with lap dogs. They have a similar function, but a lap dog is a little smarter and doesn't get its paw burned.

Where Paw City Trail begins.
Corner of 3rd and Waller, site of never-built presidential house,
shown in architect's drawing, above.