July 26, 2007
By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Maple Leaf dropped onto the college campus early this month, but a hubbub created by students, faculty and trustees caused college administrators to sweep the leaf away almost as quickly as it arrived.
The leaf was a new official Middlebury College logo created by New York City-based corporate image maker and quietly introduced into official college communications in the first week in July.
“I still think it’s a terrific mark,” said Middlebury Vice President for Communications Mike McKenna. “But it was not at this particular point in history right for the college. I wanted to honor that.”
The leaf symbol was made up of three blue Ms that were supposed to symbolize growth, renewal and shelter. Instead, it seemed to evoke the Canadian flag to many, a marijuana leaf to some and even Mr. Sneeze, the blue spiky character from the Mr. Men children’s book series, to more than a handful of students.
Created by the design firm Chermayeff and Geismar, which over the last 50 years has designed the graphic logos of NBC and Mobil, as well as of New York University and Brown University, the Middlebury logo was intended to unite varying aspects of the institution as it launches its $500 million fund-raising initiative this fall, McKenna said.
In addition to creating this symbol, the firm updated the college’s Latin seal, which has been used since 1938, retaining its content — an open book and the words “Scientia et Virtus,” Knowledge and Virtue — but simplifying the imagery.
The search for a graphic identity started about a year ago when McKenna began evaluating the college’s myriad visual symbols: the panther for athletics, the Old Chapel logo for stationary and the college seal for official documents.
McKenna worked with a committee of faculty, staff and students to ensure the new logo, when presented as part of the Middlebury Initiative to potential donors inside and outside of the institution, would communicate the defining elements of the college.
“(The logo) is a way to communicate who you are in the world,” McKenna said. “What’s Middlebury about and why should people care? We wanted to make sure we were clearly communicating in a coherent way all the different parts that are Middlebury.”
But many members of the college community felt blindsided by the decision and contacted McKenna with criticism. Students were especially vocal on the issue.
Within the first few days the Middlebury Leaf appeared on the college’s Web site, students formed a group on facebook.com, a social networking Web site, called “Just Say No to the Middlebury Logo.” The group now boasts more than 800 members.
Middlebury junior Alex Benepe, one of the group’s administrators, designed a counter logo on t-shirts he plans to sell in the fall. The shirts use the leaf to make a different statement about the college’s graphic decision: it appears as the letter “m” in the word “lame.”
“The Leaf looks too much like the Canadian flag, The Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, an airline logo, or a maple syrup company,” Benepe wrote in an e-mail. “Many students felt it did a poor job of representing the school.”
As criticism from students, faculty and trustees poured in, McKenna began to think twice about the change. His committee had received positive responses from campus groups like the Student Government Association (SGA) and the Sunday Night Group (SNG), but people seemed caught off guard when the logo was actually debuted, he said.
In an e-mail to the college community, President Ron Liebowitz wrote, “The concern that the new logo raised has shown me that we were not as transparent or deliberate in the process as we should have been. We did not hear from as large a cross-section of our constituencies as we might have.”
So the committee changed gears. They decided to adopt the updated Latin seal as official logo and keep a “double leaf” variation of the Middlebury Leaf for materials related to the Middlebury Initiative.
The college will keep using the panther symbol for athletic teams, and the Old Chapel logo will be eliminated entirely. For many people, McKenna said, that logo looks too much like a religious symbol, creating confusion over the college’s secular status.
“The process that started out seeking a new logo has led us to see that linking our future to the past through an existing symbol, and establishing it as our single official mark, makes the greatest sense,” McKenna wrote in an e-mail to the college community last week. “The seal, written in Latin, not only reminds us of our College’s roots, but it also projects human qualities that are timeless and core to what we aspire for our students and graduates — knowledge and virtue.”
Over at Facebook.com, the students seem to be relieved.
“Overall I am quite pleased by how quickly the school and Mr. McKenna responded to the complaints of the student body,” Benepe said. “It reflects a great deal of flexibility and rationality on their part, as well as on the ability of the student body to affect change, even if it is something relatively minor compared to causes like rebuilding New Orleans or making the college carbon neutral.”