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“Knowledge is Good” and Other Cherished Mottos
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Ye olde college motto hasn’t gotten much attention in the last few decades or so – and there’s probably good reason for it.

When you dust off the official seals of most colleges and universities, you’ll find that 80 to 90 percent of the inscribed mottos on them are in Latin. And they’re not easy for the typical layperson to decipher unless they’re no-brainers like Fiat lux, Lux et libertas, or Carpe diem.

The translations of other and more complex Latin mottos also leave much to be desired. On the whole, they’re stilted, arcane, and verbose. More troubling is the fact that competing translations often convey an entirely different ethos and world view. For example, Hunter College’s motto, Mihi cura futuri, has been translated as The care of the future is mine, which is both optimistic and admirable. However, its edgier counterpart, My anxiety is for the future, strikes a darkly ominous and paranoid note.

Perhaps Vini, vidi, vino (“I came, I saw, I drank wine during finals week”) might have been more uplifting.

Despite their image problem, I feel it’s time that college mottos be given their due. After all, many college and university mottos are composed in English or have been deftly translated from a variety of other languages such as Greek, French, Italian, German, and Hebrew.

It should also be noted that the last 20 years have witnessed the rapid ascension of the marketing or fundraising tagline, which has successfully supplanted, or existed side-by-side with, the official, ivy-covered mottos of yesteryear. Many of these taglines, although originally conceived to support an annual campaign to increase enrollment or alumni giving, have caught on with students and the university at large, and have enjoyed a much longer shelf life than thought possible.

Although it’s tempting to compare college and university mottos with successful taglines and slogans used in the corporate world, it would be largely unfair to the academic world. The creeds, convictions, and concerns of colleges are governed by a completely different set of traditions; and the types of expressions that are designed to appeal to a broad constituency of students, parents, and alumni generally stop short at being too cute, clever, or commercial.

A spate of recent trends, however, has permitted colleges and universities more latitude in their branding, especially with regard to sloganeering. Competition from for-profit colleges and online universities, as well as the escalating cost of tuition, has put marketing prerogatives in the crosshairs. With an eye towards ROI and results-driven outreach programs, today’s market spend has given rise to a new multitasking tagline that benefits enrollment as well as endowment, and whose more externally-facing message resonates throughout the greater branding community, not just within the hallowed halls of Whatsamatter U.

Of the 1,500 colleges and universities whose mottos and taglines were researched for Tagline Guru’s survey, the traditions they embrace, and the words that embody them, still have an ironclad grip on collegiate branding. The 10 most common words found in this large universe of mottos are (in alphabetical order): Excel/Excellence; Experience; Freedom; Future; Know/Knowledge; Learn/Learning; Light; Truth, Wisdom/Wise; and World.

The biggest hurdle of colleges and universities has been to leverage these revered concepts in a fresh and compelling way rather than fall back on the same old clichés and platitudes whose echoes reverberate in every corridor on campus. It’s a tall order…and that’s why most colleges have failed the test. Sadly, the vast majority of college and university mottos are colorless, redundant, austere, high-minded, and just plain uninviting.

That being said, our survey focuses instead on the best of the best, the summa cum laude – the Top 100 U.S. College & University Mottos that tell a compelling story, have a distinct point of view, exhibit a unique style or personality, and make you want to learn more (and dig deeper to give more). There are hidden gems out there. They simply need to be unearthed and presented with the distinction they deserve.

By the way, one of the finest educational taglines ever created isn’t a college motto at all. Back in 1972, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) introduced A mind is a terrible thing to waste, which ran in a series of award-winning advertising campaigns for several decades. After 44 years, the tagline is still in use. Created by Forrest Long, of the ad agency Young & Rubicam, the expression became one of the most widely recognized slogans in the history of advertising.

Another slogan later used by the UNCF, [They’re] not asking for a handout, just a hand, was not nearly as effective. In 2013, the UNCF introduced a slightly longer version of the original slogan, which has found some traction with potential donors: A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in.

Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, one cannot help but chuckle at the college motto that graces the statue of Emile Faber at the fictitious school that bears his name in the movie Animal House. Although Knowledge is good is not an example of astute textbook sloganeering, its concept is sound and its message clear. Of course, the way the motto is expressed is simplistic and underwhelming – not unlike many real-life college mottos that sound as if they were inspired by a suggestion from CliffsNotes.

All jokes aside, ideas like knowledge, truth, and learning are always a good place to start when contemplating a motto. However, as we shall see in the Top 100 ranked expressions, it’s nuance that charms us and wins out in the end.

Eric Swartz is a sloganeer and branding strategist living in Folsom, California. He is president and founder of Tagline Guru, a division of The Byline Group, which specializes in the creation and packaging of slogans and brand platforms for companies, cities, universities, and other organizations.

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