Hillsdale College’s Richard Péwé thinks that Hillsdale’s unofficial city motto, “It’s the People,” doesn’t “say anything about the town,” and that what really stands out in Hillsdale is the college.
The people in question are absolutely right to disagree.
If Hillsdale College and the Hillsdale City Council are really interested in improving relations between the two communities, their decision to replace the city’s iconic “It’s the People” M-99 welcome sign is a serious blunder.
After the Collegian reported on the upcoming change (“It’s not the people anymore,” 8/31/16), a “Vanished Hillsdale” Facebook poll found that residents favor the “It’s the People” sign by a margin of nearly 6 to 1. Many comments on the typically amiable page were bitter.
“Hillsdale College is taking over this town and it’s sickening,” Hillsdale resident Tracy Johns wrote. “The town is more than just the college.”
This probably isn’t the kind of relationship Péwé hoped the signs would produce.
The current sign, with its cheerful slogan surrounded by the badges of local service clubs and organizations, is a celebration of Hillsdale’s residents and the community they have built. It is memorable, instantly recognizable, and widely beloved.
The replacement sign will swap that community flair for the slick branding of a marketing brochure, welcoming travelers to the “Home of Hillsdale College” in the white and blue of official college signs. Visitors will presumably have to find about about the Garden Club and the Rotary on their own.
The old sign had its drawbacks. The wicker design showed its age, and the lack of any mention of the college was awkward. This won’t even be the first time Hillsdale’s welcome signs have capitalized on the college brand: according to a 1962 Collegian photo, the predecessor to “It’s the People” also proclaimed the town “Home of Hillsdale College,” with an enormous drawing of Central Hall to boot.
But the new design goes a step too far by casting the city of Hillsdale as one element of the college, rather than the other way around. No matter how big the school’s national brand may be, the city of Hillsdale belongs to the residents, and those residents are justifiably keen to maintain an identity distinct from that of the college.
It’s also worth asking what the college hopes to gain from a new sign in the first place. Its brand thrives on radio ads, on Rush Limbaugh spots, on the circulation of Imprimis, and on its online courses, not on a six-foot board twenty miles from any interstate. There’s no reason why the college shouldn’t be content to leave the regional branding to the group interested in building a regional brand: the city of Hillsdale.
To local residents upset by the change, all we students can say is that we’re bummed too. After all, “It’s the People” has united the college community just as strongly as it has the city. The phrase has made an appearance in the past three freshman convocations. Students and alumni sharing the news on social media voiced the same disappointment and disgust as residents.
“One reason I got more knowledge than a lot of people at the college was that I spent so much time in town and had so many friends among the locals,” Joshua Rice ’14 wrote on Facebook. “The ever-deepening rift between the school and the town is dangerous, damaging, sad, and largely the college’s fault.”
In the end, that’s the biggest irony here. The sign that links college and community best is the sign we already had. When it’s gone, we’ll all be worse off.
Egger is a senior studying history.