Understanding UAB, Part 2: Heretics and Atheists
By Ralph HarbisonIn the last edition of this article, I introduced you to the idea of branding as key part of a university’s growth and influence. Branding, to recap, is the story as told by those with an interest in the group, institution, or business, and when done well, that story invites others to add to it.
The problem with UAB and her branding is that those who love the school, those with a vested interest in her success, want to write a story separate from that of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees. This creates a situation where those who want to see UAB grow will always be at odds with those who want to see UAB fail, and there will always be conflicting stories, conflicting branding, in the public eye. Now, we need to discuss two concepts that are part of branding, though the words that I am going to use are not typical to branding discussions.
The first concept is that of indoctrination. “Indoctrination,” per Wikipedia, is defined as “the process of inculcating ideas, attitudes, cognitive strategies or a professional methodology (see doctrine). Indoctrination is a critical component in the transfer of cultures, customs, and traditions from one generation to the next. Some distinguish indoctrination from education, claiming that the indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine they have learned. As such the term may be used pejoratively or as a buzz word, often in the context of political opinions, theology, religious dogma or anti-religious convictions.
Everyone has been indoctrinated to some degree with regards to higher education. For example, is Harvard the best university in the country because there are a set of measurable criteria in which Harvard is superior or is Harvard the best because we have been told and taught that Harvard is the best? One key factor of this indoctrination is the belief that, with precious few exceptions, the schools with the higher profile athletic departments are better schools.
In the extreme case, such as in Alabama, it becomes dogmatic and at times, laughable. The University of Alabama is a better university than MIT because MIT “ain’t got no football team.”
While the majority of citizens of Alabama see that as asinine, the concept permeates our culture. At various times and in various parts of the state, there have been (and still are) those who believe that it is better to be an illiterate ’Bama (or Auburn) fan than it is to hold a degree from a lesser school. People cling to their preferred program, as a member of a tribe holds tight to his tribal identity, eschewing any and all attempts to convert.
This indoctrination is so pervasive that it is religious in nature. Children have closed prayers thanking God for football coaches. Polls have shown that the three most influential men to the people of Alabama were Bear Bryant, Jesus, and Robert E. Lee, in that order. When pressed why, one response was because “Lee lost and Jesus ain’t come back yet to cast the Yankees into hell.”
Auburn fans are as bad in some ways, as they also internalize their team’s perceived “stepchild” status. As a university, Auburn is different than Alabama, but it is not entirely fair to say that it is a worse school. Yet there is that perception that it is a “cow college” and is only there for the “rednecks” while Alabama is there for the “upper crust.”
As with any indoctrinated society, there are those who escape the hold of the indoctrination. They are the agnostics and atheists of the religious societies. In Alabama, there are those who do not put much stock in football or those who have never “pulled for the Tide or Tigers.” If we think in religious terms, and for this state that is not far off, these agnostics and atheists are a threat to the status quo but a necessary evil.
While they tempt true believers to leave the faith, they also tend to work in areas that the rank and file faithful are not qualified to work. So, someone will forgive their doctor for being a Yankee Penn State grad or a cancer researcher for going to Duke and not caring about football enough. Another group within an indoctrinated society are those who were indoctrinated, some very highly, who lose that faith system. These are the heretics. Heretics leave the true faith for a false teaching.
In this state, they were Alabama or Auburn fans who now pull for some other team or school. The fear of being a heretic cause some to say “I am a Tide fan but I pull for Samford, too,” or “Yes, I am a UAB fan but I am also for Auburn,” as if adding the caveat grants them a pass from being cast out of the tribe (and it often does). Unlike the football atheists and agnostics, heretics are a major threat to the true faith and are not typically tolerated. Heretics represent an option to turn away from one sect and enter into another, taking money and power with them. Since the inherent nature of those who enjoy the status quo is to protect it, heretics must be eliminated and any and all heresies purged from the earth.
The second concept is enculturation. “Enculturation” is how well an individual assimilates within the group, adopting the beliefs, values, and traditions of that group. Simply put, does the outsider become part of the group AND does the indoctrinated person become more indoctrinated and deeper within the group.
If we look at Alabama and Auburn, we see that the enculturation process is designed to make indoctrination stronger. The entire society is focused on being a member of the fandom first and foremost. Again, there are the football atheists and agnostics, and even a heretic or two, but by and large, everyone is of the same faith. Those who enter the campus from a different faith are faced with enculturation or being somewhat of an outcast. While their ability to get the degree that they seek is not in question, their social world will be minimal. Good enculturation can improve indoctrination of the same faith and weaken indoctrination of a different one. In fact, the best enculturation will actually destroy indoctrination, creating a new heretic.
UAB has not been allowed to build the strongest tools of enculturation, such as a strong and visible Greek system and a vibrant athletic department, including a strong football team, yet UAB has still been able to acculturate students. One amazing factor in this enculturation is that it is 100 percent voluntary.
At UAB, becoming a UAB fan or member of the UAB Family (those who care about UAB without regard to fandom) is a choice that is made internally. There is not a strong enough Blazer Culture to force it upon anyone at risk of ostracism. Blazers become Blazers because they find the magic in the place and through personal exposure to other Blazers.
This is a different mechanism of enculturation, and a far superior one. Those who become part of the UAB Family will rather quickly drop the “but also” description. They become surprised when other people add it for them “Yes, but you also like _________.” “No, I am a UAB Blazer. That is more than enough.” Their belief in the UAB Family and UAB experience is insulting to the most highly indoctrinated, and it is a threat. The idea that you can grow to love something that is not “us” means that those who love the status quo lose power over you. They are no longer a tool or pawn in their game. And their love for their new heresy naturally attracts those who seek a new faith as well as those who do not share the indoctrination. More importantly, they can also help others to break the hold that their old indoctrination held over them.
UAB, therefore, can be seen as something created to hold the agnostics and atheists, as well as the indoctrinated who were unable to attend the University of Alabama or Auburn. The idea was to create a way these people could maintain their indoctrination while gaining a degree.
What was not foreseen, and could not have been because of the different nature of the UAB culture verses the cultures of the other schools, is the way the UAB Family would acculturate others and create a new faith system in Alabama, one based on the optimistic opportunity that UAB represents for the world.
The next edition of this series will focus on what the UAB story is not. That will bring Understanding UAB into clear focus.
Ralph Harbison is a business consultant and personal, business, and wellness coach based in Birmingham. Ralph is also a co-founder and Chairman of Dragon PAC, a state political action committee dedicated to education transformation in Alabama. For more about Ralph, visit ralphharbison.com and to help Dragon PAC, visit dragonpac.org.