Father of the nation, promoter of a college Founder: Washington College has joined a drive to re-educate the public on the virtues of America's first president.

August 06, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN - Sure, George Washington fought the Indians, defeated the British and set the mold for the American presidency.

But can he sell?

That is the question being asked by Washington College, the small liberal arts college on the Eastern Shore that was founded in 1782 with the help of 50 guineas from the nation's first president. In an attempt to raise its profile with prospective students, alumni and potential donors, the 1,250-student college has embarked on a mission to better market its association with Washington, who received an honorary degree from the school and served on its board.

"If you build a fantastic product, you need to promote it, and if you promote it, you need a brand," said Terry Scout, chairman of the college's business and management department. "Well, we have a natural brand that fits - George Washington."

A college committee has spent the past five months finding ways to use the Washington link: a new college logo with Washington's profile, an annual Washington leadership award for national figures, expanded student leadership programs modeled after Washington, and a strong Washington presence on the college Web site.

It may seem unlikely for such a famously sober Founding Father to be put in the role of campus pitchman - a sign of just how far colleges will go today in pursuit of a distinctive image.

In fact, though, the marketing push is part of a new nationwide effort to generate buzz around Washington, led by the directors of Mount Vernon, Washington's Virginia estate. Worried about a decline in knowledge about American history, and about Washington in particular, Mount Vernon is looking for ways to jazz up the image of a president often perceived as less colorful than fellow Founding Fathers.

To that end, Mount Vernon has commissioned Steven Spielberg to make a film depicting Washington as the action hero of the American Revolution, to be shown in a high-tech theater included in plans for a new $50 million visitors center.

The estate is also working with Washington College to create a Washington Book Prize, awarded annually to books relating to the first president and modeled on the annual $50,000 Lincoln Book Prize administered by Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Ideally, estate and college officials say, the prize (probably about $25,000, paid by an endowment) would encourage popular new books about Washington akin to recent bestsellers about John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Those involved in Washington's promotion find it an odd task to have to publicize the Father of Our Country.

"It would be astonishing for the Founding Fathers that there is a need to boost his reputation," said Ted Widmer, a Washington College history professor who has led discussions with Mount Vernon. "They would be flabbergasted that books about Adams and Jefferson are selling more, because in their time Washington was The Man."

But the relative neglect of Washington can be explained, Widmer adds. In an age that favors leaders with human flaws, Washington strikes many as forbiddingly upright - unlike, say, Jefferson, who has won attention for his possible liaison with a slave.

"We like to read books about imperfect people, and perfection is boring," he said. "We have to recreate the complexity of his life and make him more attainable to people, show he was a living, breathing human being - one with difficult health issues, complicated family issues."

Collaboration between the college and Mount Vernon could include co-sponsored lectures by visiting scholars, a national history bee, and the production of kindergarten-through-12th-grade teaching materials about Washington.

The goal, say those at both ends, is not to expose Washington's foibles. It is to reintroduce him as the consummate man of action who, if not the most intellectual of the Founding Fathers, was more literate than many realize and embodied what Americans value most: valor, integrity, honesty and business smarts.

Most notably, they say, he established the prototype for leadership in a democracy by wielding power with restraint and relinquishing the presidency after two terms to return to his farm.

"He is in our perspective the most well-rounded of all the Founding Fathers," said Ann Bay, Mount Vernon's associate director for education.

For years, college officials say, the school underutilized what they call its Washington "asset," leading many to assume the college was simply named after him, like other colleges with "Washington" in their name.

By more strongly identifying with Washington, college officials say, they can publicize the school's emphasis on the qualities he represented: leadership, honor and service.

Granted, this may seem staid to some 18-year-olds, who likely view as out of date the dictums in Washington's "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior," which the college gives to freshmen. (One rule: "Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out of your chamber half dressed.")

But other students will be attracted to those values - especially after Sept. 11, said the college's Web editor, Ted Knight.

Not that the school is hurting for students - last year, it received a record 2,000 applications, leading to a reduction in the acceptance rate to 64 percent from 82 percent. But building the Washington brand - which the college so far has done without paid consultants - could allow it to be even more selective.

College officials know they risk being seen as gimmicky in marketing Washington - as trying to "put a copyright symbol on this guy to sell T-shirts," as Widmer put it. But they believe Washington himself would approve of being thus employed, because it's in service to a college modeled after his ideals.

"He's our celebrity," said Joe Holt, the college's vice president for administration, "and we're in a celebrity culture, so why not roll him out as our celebrity?"

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