'Girls' decision shows a university that acts like a corporate brand

U of I bars HBO series from filming on campus because of unfavorable lighting.

Todd Dorman
Published: April 1 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 7 April 2014 | 3:01 pm in

Iowa’s Creative Corridor, where you’re free to create, so long as it’s not disruptive or makes us look bad.

So says the University of Iowa, which last week refused to give the HBO series “Girls” permission to do some filming on campus. In this season’s final episode, the show’s lead, Hannah Horvath, played by Lena Dunham, was accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

HBO asked for permission to follow Hannah all the way to the genuine U of I campus. But no dice. First, the university said it turned down the network because shooting the show would be a disruption. Then, it turned out that Joseph Brennan, UI Vice President for strategic communication, had seen the script and found that the plot line “didn’t place the university and the community in a favorable light.”

No favorable lighting, no “Girls” on campus.

I’ve seen several episodes of the show, which tracks the lives of four young women living in New York City and all the comedy/drama that entails. Adult situations, as the parental guidance warnings say.

Is the show any good? You’re asking the wrong demographic. I’m supposed to be watching televised sports. I can tell by all the Cialis commercials.

University officials also would seem to fall outside the show’s prime demographic wheelhouse. But university students are a different matter. “Girls” is their cultural property. U of I officials could have asked those students all about it before barring the show from their campus. But there’s no evidence that happened. Would have been too disruptive, I guess. An online petition urging the university to change its mind has collected more than 500 signatures.

One of the show’s writers, Sarah Heyward, graduated from the workshop. But the way the university reacted, you’d have thought journalism professor Stephen Bloom was writing the show. Hannah among the meth-addled, tractor-pull-loving Jell-O fiends, perhaps.

I assume that the script calls for some variation of boring Midwest bashing, with Iowa City no match for exciting New York City! Maybe there’s an adult situation that depicts the campus as something other than an academic utopia on the prairie. Perhaps she hunts campus rabbits with a pellet gun, or tweets from the holding cell at Kinnick as @HawkeyeVodkaHannah.

Whatever the reason, it was a dumb call, if only for the simple fact that the unfavorable light will be shined on the university anyway. It will just be filmed someplace else. So the UI still gets the negative but none of the potential positives of bringing the show to campus. Educational opportunities, even. The state has an office dedicated to attracting film shoots, but the UI missed the memo.

What bothers me even more is watching a public university act, yet again, like a corporation doing anything it takes to protect its image and brand. Keep that favorable light shining, even if it means pulling the plug, closing the gates.

A university dedicated to providing a home for academic freedom, open debate and the pursuit of knowledge wherever it leads should, ideally, spend a lot less of its time trying to conceal its blemishes and blunders. A great university really shouldn’t be so afraid of its close-up.


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