Sound Off – AU’s Coat of Arms and Crest

Actions speak louder than words, but images can speak loudest of all. In fact, as the old saying goes, pictures are worth a thousand words?and in today’s visually-oriented culture, where quick, image-related stimuli are a primary means of propagating brands and concepts, they may be worth much, much more.

So when you create a picture, It’s crucial to ensure that the thousand words You’re propagating are saying exactly the message You’re hoping to get across. That’s why I’m bothered by the new Athabasca University coat of arms, received from the Canadian Heraldic Authority just a few months ago.

While the coat of arms won’t replace AU’s long-time logo, AU’s Heraldry office ?[encourages] widespread usage of the coat of arms??so you’ll be seeing more of it, especially once the office releases its guidelines for use.

The move is not without controversy. ?The crest design has been a very long process, and we’re pleased to see that It’s been completed,? says Tamra Ross, Executive Director of the Athabasca University Students’ Union. However, there are concerns: ?We’re told that student input was sought throughout the stages of design development, but AUSU has not been directly involved,? she says. ?The very strong northern focus isn’t quite in synch with our view of AU as a national university . . .?

The ancient art of heraldry is very message-specific. Each component of a crest and coat of arms has a significant meaning, and AU’s coat of arms is no exception. AU’s Coat of Arms page describes in more detail the symbolism behind each image used. But there’s a disappointing trend: as noted by Ross, much of the coat of arms seems over-focused on local and regional ties.

For example, the green spruce represents northern Alberta, the bear the west (and a local First Nations), and the poplar leaves, north-central Alberta. While several of the aspects have dual meanings, there’s little to indicate that AU is somehow different than any other school That’s giving a heraldic nod to its brick-and-mortar campus.

Which seems to miss the point.

The coat of arms and crest simply don’t reflect the significant role of AU in redefining who a university student is. Not bounded by geographic location, age, or even ability to dedicate time to full-time learning, the AU student?and, by extension, the modern student?can’t be summarized by a limited geographical concept. While Athabasca University has ties to the local community, there’s no campus that a student might look toward as home, in the traditional sense of alma mater.

In fact, in 2010, nearly two thirds of all AU students lived outside of Alberta?with the number of Ontario-based undergraduate students almost equal to the number of those from Alberta. And even among the Alberta-based undergraduates, many didn’t reside in north-central Alberta; more than a third lived in Calgary alone. This means that the geographic symbolism on AU’s crest and coat of arms doesn’t reflect the experience of even a quarter of its undergraduate students.

For graduate students, the numbers are even lower.

I’d always thought of AU as a place that bucked the narrowness of educational tradition in favour of open-minded approaches to learning, but there’s no indication from the coat of arms? symbolism that this is the university’s strong point. Oddly, the AU badge?a circle, representing the global aspect of distance education, surrounding the local-themed poplar leaves?seems a much better representation of what AU is all about.

Athabasca University was a pioneer in breaking down demographic boundaries in education, and remains a strong force in the open access world today. This is the accomplishment not just of one governing body, but of all the AU family?including the staff, professors, tutors, current students, and those students who have gone before us. The coat of arms should reflect this achievement.

Time to sound off: what do you think of Athabasca University’s new coat of arms and crest? How well do you think it represents the university and its students? Tell The Voice, and you could win!

Ten respondents will win free Voice swag! Email us today at and let us know your opinion on AU’s coat of arms and crest.

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