Thanks to Breitbart, Fox News, the Chronicle of Higher Education and other top news sources, attention on the University of Wyoming is at an all-time high.
Last week stories about UW’s hot new marketing campaign to recruit students, “The World Needs More Cowboys,” were all over the Internet. Suddenly people who never even knew the university in the Magic City of the Plains existed began inquiring about T-shirts and other merchandise they could buy before the campaign began.
UW’s Board of Trustees recognized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and seized it. Meeting in Cody on Thursday, it decided to officially approve the campaign and start it early. It didn’t spend much time on what made the story so newsworthy: the culture war it sparked between faculty members and others who hated what they viewed as a sexist and racist campaign vs. cowboy fans who railed against pointy-headed liberals who can just go live somewhere else if they don’t like it.
There are plenty of reasons to object to this cowboy recruiting slogan, beginning with its exorbitant price tag. UW paid a marketing firm called Victors & Spoils $500,000, which amounts to $100,000 a word. Moreover, the university apparently couldn’t find a Wyoming company with enough expertise to earn the contract, instead turning to one located in the leftist Republic of Boulder in Colorado.
Another problem is the fact that Oklahoma State University — which already shares versions of Wyoming’s bucking horse and rider logo and UW’s athletic mascot, Pistol Pete — has its own recruitment campaign. Unbelievably, it’s also called “The World Needs More Cowboys.”
Is it too much to expect that someone at Victor & Spoils or the University of Wyoming could have Googled their half-a-million-dollar creation to find out if anyone else is using the same slogan?
But most of the internal UW criticism centered on the notion that forever tying the university to a symbol of a straight, white male icon (think of the Marlboro Man or John Wayne) any more than it already does with its cowboy mascot was directly at odds with the need to make the student body more diverse. The campaign also ignored the contributions of Native Americans in favor of recognizing the white guys who tore up treaties and put tribes on reservations.
“It becomes incredibly problematic to try to imagine using any of this [campaign] when I’m recruiting Native students,” Angela Jaime, director of American Indian Studies, told the Casper Star-Tribune. “The term ‘cowboy’ evokes the play time — the racist play time — of cowboys and Indians, right?”
I only read about 100 of the 2,000-plus comments right-wing Breitbart readers put online, but they universally condemned anyone who dared to suggest cowboys aren’t the symbol of everything that’s right in America. The conversation didn’t degenerate into homosexuality, racism and bestiality, it started there. On the bright side maybe some Breitbart commenters could be recruited as UW students, because obviously few of them know how to spell.
Chad Baldwin, UW’s assistant vice president for communications and marketing, has the unenviable task of trying to sell the new slogan to critics. He explained the university is reinventing the word “cowboy” to show that it can also include women, Native Americans and other ethnic groups.
“We’re recasting the concept of the cowboy,” he said, “so that it represents everyone associated with it.”
But the campaign jumps the shark when it claims in its promotional materials that every era has cowboys — outside thinkers “who dig beneath the surface by relentlessly questioning what others blindly accept.” Under this definition, UW identified some surprising, unlikely historical figures who were really “cowboys,” including Galileo, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mary Wollstonecraft.
This got me thinking about how UW could capitalize even more on its new slogan if it makes the right moves. But it should act fast. Such outside thinking could be stolen by non-cowboys.
Wyoming is the state that gave Donald Trump his largest margin of victory in the 2016 presidential election. With that kind of popularity, the university wouldn’t have to name Trump an honorary cowboy to make him the figurehead of “The World Needs More Cowboys.” His relentless questioning of reality already makes him one.
The president has extensive educational experience from running Trump University, which settled a lawsuit with unhappy students for $25 million before he was inaugurated. While that sounds like a disaster, no doubt Trump could teach UW business officials how to use monumental failure as a huge tax write-off.
These recycled earnings could be utilized to buy a host of investments for UW, including casinos and more Trump Towers. Laramie could expect at least a world-class golf course, an expanded airport to handle Air Force One, a resort hotel filled by reporters who would flood the city to mindlessly record whatever the president says, and foreign diplomats who want to curry favor with the new Western White House.
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To make sure everything is as ethical as Trump’s other business arrangements, the president would allow his three adult children to run his part of the UW enterprise. They would negotiate a percentage of the profits that would be high enough to keep their father satisfied.
Since we’d throw out the conventional cowboy clothing, we wouldn’t have to fit the president’s unique hairstyle under a cowboy hat. He would be more comfortable in his traditional “Make America Great Again” ball cap, with the addition of a Wyoming bucking horse and rider (not to be confused with an imitation one from Oklahoma State).
If the president had some spare time while hanging around Laramie, perhaps he’d be interested in being a guest lecturer. He could assign students to read his book, “The Art of the Deal,” and if he was called back to his presidential duties he could hand the class over to the person really behind Trump’s bestseller, ghostwriter Tony Schwartz.
What I’m trying to convey to UW officials is, “Fellas (and I’m using that word in its reinvented sense of inclusion of women and anyone else who could view it negatively) why not alter your campaign to take advantage of a man who described himself in a January tweet as ‘a very stable genius.’”
How often can a bunch of cowboys like us say we have this kind of an educational opportunity for our people?
I don’t get UW’s insistence that “cowboy” is inclusive of all kinds of people.
Willie Nelson has a hit song from a few years ago that’s the definition of “cowboy” (Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys).. The lyrics exclude “doctors and lawyers and such” from being a cowboy. To the rest of the world, these lyrics still hold when the word “cowboy” is used. Then there are the slogans “Cowboy Up/Man Up”,
Dictionaries (online and print) define a cowboy as “he”. More specifically a “he” who tends cattle in the American West. Or as a person who behaves recklessly..
Even rodeo cowboys are male. And predominantly white.. Team ropers, steer wrestlers, bronc riders, calf ropers. No women allowed. If a woman wants to ride broncs or rope calves, she has to compete in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) or in a ranch rodeo association or in the lady’s division of the recently-formed Texas Bronc Riders Association and she’s called a cowgirl. Not a cowboy.
How does UW think it can redefine cowboy to include doctors and lawyers and such when the rest of the world seems to agree that that isn’t so. And it spent half a million dollars to have a marketing company come up with this? Don’t they have a budget problem? (Maybe they can overcome that by selling cowboy themed t-shirts?) How do you justify spending that much money for a new corny slogan when you’re cutting teaching staff and non-energy related degree programs? To me, this isn’t positioning our only state land-grant college (er, university) as a leading institution of higher learning.
Good old Wyoming. Where even almost all candidates for governor are trying to convince voters that they’re cowboys. Oh, wait, they want to be ranchers, the cowboy’s boss. A rancher can be a doctor or a lawyer or a woman or such. (If you study Wyoming history, wasn’t it male (cattle) ranchers and their cowboys who instituted the Johnson County War and carried out the Spring Creek Raid and numerous other conflicts against sheep ranchers and settlers?)
Redefine the word and re-write history? Good luck with that.
It appears that your reference to “Magic City” is a refernce to Laramie. However, Cheyenne is the Magic City of the Plains; Laramie is the Gem City of the Plains.
Of all UW’s trials in the last few years, including budget and leadership crises, I believe the drama over the marketing slogan has made me the saddest. Sad for the people of Wyoming who felt their heritage and culture was being denigrated by the slogan’s critics. Sad for the handful of critics, who undoubtedly chose their words with too little thought, and consequently faced a volley of angry pushback, but nonetheless raised valid points about possible perceptions of exclusivity. And especially sad for UW, a great little university with opportunities for all, which was made to look foolish in the national press. I so wish for a happier more unified day ahead for UW, a place we all love, where “opportunities beckon, as wide open as the Wyoming skies.”
I’m a minority woman with a BSW, MS and a PhD from UW. I am a proud Wyoming native and UW alum. There’s a part of me that is proud to be a cowgirl, and I do value the cowboy ethics of honor and hard work. However, I spend my life teaching about and working to heal intergenerational trauma left in the wake of genocide and historical and ongoing oppression. Our world today is wrought with human suffering, and the roots of this suffering are largely traceable back to oppression and trauma, as indicated by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) research.
The privilege of being able to say that the world needs more cowboys without considering what this means to the people who not only don’t think of themselves as cowboys, but have, indeed, experienced, and continue to experience, pain and grief because of such privilege, is… well, painful. While it’s debatable to some, for others, myself included, as a slogan of an institution of higher education, it’s sad, because it can create a sense of exclusion. For me, and probably countless UW students, potential students, graduates, and even staff and faculty, it just doesn’t fit.
For me, having earned a higher education was accomplished with the actual intent to educate about and change the very invisible privilege this situation demonstrates. We are living in a time in which some of our brightest students, potential students, graduates and faculty are facing the challenges of their lives because perhaps they are not White, they are not straight, they are not boys or men, or they are immigrants. It is important for me to share, as I write this, that no matter how this situation is spun now, it has already created yet another layer of exclusion for me at a time when I have been relying on my UW education to help foster hope among people while fighting the increased divisions, violence, and humanitarian crises facing fellow humans today. I can hear many arguments forming against what I have shared here, and yet, this is my story, my truth, and my experience. It leads me to wonder how many women, poor people, non-White, LGBTQ people, or others from non-dominant populations were involved in choosing this marketing slogan.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2009 that feeling different and disconnected from one’s school is an overarching risk factor for today’s young people, and can result in poor academic, social, emotional, and economic outcomes. Meanwhile, Wyoming faces the highest gender wage gap in the entire United States, and we have one of the highest suicide rates in the country, as well. Compassion and connection, not exclusion, have been shown in the research to be important protective factors for improving such issues. Again, the privilege of not having to consider the life-challenging and economic consequences of being excluded is what stands out for me when my university says, “the world needs more cowboys.” Now is not the time to exclude, as institutions of higher education are the only safe havens of hope for some who at least have the privilege of education in an otherwise exclusive world in which some many continue to not only feel different, but, in fact, increasingly less safe. Education is one ray of hope in solving some of our world’s most pressing challenges.
I think UW itself is facing some of these very challenges— especially economic challenges. Excluding, no matter how inadvertently, potential students, may not be a helpful strategy for student recruitment and retention. It may also not foster faculty and staff morale.
Thank you, Kerry Drake, for creating spaces to expand our thinking about important issues such as this.
The Japanese Cowgirl
Have you heard of the Federation of Black Cowboys? The Bill Picket rodeo? Have you looked up various Native nations to see what’s happening with their rodeo’s? With their cowboys? Not only is ‘cowboy’ alive and well among diverse people but WOMEN are rodeoing, cowboying up, and showing what they’ve got. They are helping commit to, and continue cowboy history and culture. They are awesome in the true sense of the word. I haven’t followed rodeo yet in terms of Mexican and Hispanic heritage, but I know it’s there. The ‘cowboy’ was diverse to begin with, didn’t tear up treaties, didn’t send anybody to a reservation, and if you’re clinging to the Hollywood and TV versions of ‘cowboy’, God help you, you must believe in Batman, that nuns can use their headgear to fly, and sexy blondes in genie bottles can get you outa trouble. The history is there; study it. The living cowboys and cowgirls are among us; support them, What Wyoming can do is reach out and make sure diverse cowboys and cowgirls feel welcome at the Cheyenne rodeo and others in the state. UW can set the record straight in terms of cowboy history so there is no more Forgotten Cowboy or any other forgotten people in terms of race and sex in western history. And being new to Wyo, aren’t the cowboy and horse used for the state and the university symbols based on actual historical figures? Or are they just stereotypes of old ’60s TV? If they are the real deal, that’s what the world needs more of; accurate history.
UW is spending $1.4 million to reach potential students. What will those students find should they come to UW? A $10 million permanent reduction plan (in 2018), reductions which so far have contributed to a loss of faculty & programs. UW needs less advertising & more concrete product, that is a good education, which, as a UW grad & taxpayer, I would support. Not an insipid slogan.
The late artist Harry Jackson of Cody had a favorite quip I use frequently to aerate the conversation when Wyoming attempts to explain itself to the outside world , which we have to do all too often.
” Wyoming is 500,000 against the World ”
In the context of this discussion , that means our lone 4-year institute of higher education will attempt to redefine ” Cowboy ” and project it outwards to the seven continents , three hundred named seas, and low earth orbit. After 150 years of glamorizing, mythologizing, apologizing, and sanitizing the actual range riding cattle herders that trampled the sagebrush for all of 15 years in the late 19th century , U-Dub will now attempt sell the world a Neo-Cowboy for the 21st century. That omnibus opus persona version 2.0 will not drawl and brawl like John Wayne, dress like Hopalong Cassidy , sing like Gene Autrey , gaze like Clint Eastwood , or do much dancing with wolves. It will have a smartphone and drink lattes, not whiskey, though. It will not ride a horse but might drive a Prius.
U-Dub has it’s work cut out for it in attempting to refine the classic cowboy ( a long extinct subspecie of hominid ) and define the Neo-Cowboy still gestating in the vats of Old Main down there in Laramie.
Good luck . Just by mentioning the word ” cowboy ” and all that goes with that , UW has immediately run off 80 percent of the potential candidates for recruitment. The remaining pool of possible enrollees already knows everything he, she, or it needs to know about cowboys coming and going and the marketing is wasted on them.
Wouldn’t it be wunderful if Wyoming went with the world , not against it , for once ? It’s the 21st century UW… go there.
Incisive commentary. Vintage Kerry Drake. I love it!