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The sign at the edge of Hillsdale on M‑99 (Photo: Greg McLogan / Courtesy).

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.