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Playing the Name Game

Playing the Name Game
August 28, 2008

For at least 20 years now, many colleges have been changing their names to "university" as soon as even a few master's programs could seemingly justify the switch. Ten years ago, Loyola College in Maryland nearly joined them -- but rejected the idea of changing its name. In a sign perhaps of just how far the trend has gone, Loyola -- once proud of sticking with "college" -- is planning to change its name to Loyola University Maryland in August 2009. The change is expected to be approved by the Maryland Higher Education Commission once the institution files a formal request later this year. Though the college’s president believes the new name will more accurately reflect its overall mission and stature, a number of its alumni and faculty are concerned the name change may lead to other unexpected and unflattering changes at the institution.

“Hopefully people will understand that we’re a very rich institution,” said Rev. Brian F. Linnane, Loyola’s president, of the public’s perception of his institution. “We are a comprehensive university with a commitment to graduate education. College does not reflect all of those different offerings.”

The historic name, he said, may limit perceptions of the institution’s academic programs. He added that it was not advantageous for the institution to highlight the assumption that its graduate programs were an “afterthought,” noting that the college designation often presumes a singular focus on undergraduate education. Loyola has about 6,000 students, 40 percent of whom are graduate students. Father Linnane said the name change will not dictate an adjustment in institutional philosophy, as some critics fear. Loyola will still maintain its strong sense of community, he said, adding that its now-praised decisions to become coeducational and to open residence halls were also once viewed as betrayals by alumni.

Father Linnane’s argument for the change, however, is in opposition to the 1999 board of trustees’ decision to maintain the historical name, citing that it gave the college a competitive advantage. The board noted that the designation set it apart from the three other “Loyola” universities in Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles. Additionally, the board noted that other well-known and well-respected institutions, such as Dartmouth and Boston Colleges, have maintained their historical designations even though it is plain that they are full-fledged universities. Father Linnane said when the debate surrounding the institution’s name and a new strategic plan arose again, the board’s prior rationale did not hold any weight for the future.

“We made this decision based on situating ourselves and marketing ourselves properly,” Father Linnane said. “I’m an alumnus of Boston College. My guess is that if there wasn’t a Boston University across the street, it would have been called Boston University a long time ago.”

The basis for the name change is not as transparent for some troubled alumni. Matthew E. Fischer, a 2004 graduate, gathered a group of alumni, students, parents, faculty and staff who oppose the decision. In addition to writing an open letter to the board of trustees, members of the group have also signed a pledge to withhold further donations to the institution until it has assured them it will maintain its historical name. Now that the decision has been made by the board and it is expected to be validated by the state commission, Fischer said this is the only recourse many alumni have to show their discontent. The rationale for the name change is not clear, he said, adding that he believes the board’s reasoning for maintaining the "college" designation in 1999 is still valid today.

“If this isn’t about increasing admissions, what exactly is the real upside of this?” questioned Fischer. “You’re alienating an alumni base. There is a notion of the slippery slope. Your name isn’t just a description of who you are, it’s a description of who you want to be and what you want to say about yourself to the rest of the world. Loyola is getting caught up in a bit of a fad.”

Fischer, who turned down offers from Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University, said he came to Loyola because of its individualized focus on education and Jesuit influence. He said the name change does not bother him as much as the mindset and logic that brought the institution to the name change. It is his worry that the intimacy that made the college a destination for him will be lost under the university designation.

Also of concern to Fischer is that a number of faculty and staff who privately expressed concern to the group about the name change have been unwilling to do so publicly.

Richard A. Hersel, principal of the Art & Science Group, a Baltimore-based firm that advises colleges on marketing and enrollment strategies, said he is both amused and troubled by Loyola’s decision.

“If all this continues in the next 20 years, we’ll have no institutions that are colleges,” Hersel said, noting that designation changes often do little to help institutions differentiate themselves. “At Loyola [College in Maryland], they might just as well strip Loyola and stop referring to themselves as Catholic. It might help them just as well. Or, they could call themselves Johns Hopkins North. That might help.”

According to a survey conducted for Loyola in advance of the name change decision, about two-thirds of prospective students surveyed said it was more prestigious to attend a “university” than a “college.” Nearly the same proportion of prospective students also said it looks better to have attended a “university” than a “college.” Courtney M. Jolley, the college’s interim director of public relations, stated in an e-mail that it was important to note that no group surveyed – prospective students, undergraduate students, graduate students, parents, alumni, faculty and staff – preferred “college” as a designation to “university.” Still, when asked whether Loyola was a “college” or a “university,” all of the groups surveyed identified the institution as a college. This number was particularly high among current undergraduates; 73 percent identified Loyola as a “college.”

Though Father Linnane said the decision to change the name was not driven by market research, he said it confirmed his and the board’s decision that such a move would not explicitly harm the institution and others' perceptions of it. He added that no additional research was tied to admissions and the decision’s possible effect, noting that the initial research was about marketing the institution’s name. In spite of this, Hersel expressed more reluctance concerning the institution’s rationale.

“If you make these decisions based on what people prefer and don’t prefer, that’s a shallow empirical reason,” Hersel said, noting that he rarely advises institutions to make simple designation changes. “Just because people say a university has more status or that they prefer it in a survey doesn’t mean that’ll change the decisions they make. They’ll do this, and it’s not going to produce substantial results. It’s not a panacea, that’s for sure.”

There are some circumstances in which a name change can help an institution’s image, Hersel noted. His firm recently advised Oklahoma State University at Okmulgee to change its name to Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology after extensive research showed it would produce positive benefits for the institution. Additionally, he pointed to the 1996 decision of Trenton State College to change its name to the College of New Jersey, the name used by Princeton University until 1896. These changes, however, were more substantive than designation changes. Hersel said he would like to see more state regulation concerning what defines a “college” and a “university,” adding that these designations often confuse students more than help them.

Loyola’s neighboring institution in Baltimore, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, is considering a similar name change. Such a discussion, however, is in the preliminary stages, said Mary Pat Seurkamp, the institution's president. Concerning the possibility of confusing students with that well-known university in South Bend, Ind., Seurkamp noted that her undergraduate women’s college already receives some applications from men who believe they are applying to the University of Notre Dame. The addition of a new pharmacy school, among other plans for future graduate and professional school growth, has caused the institution to reconsider its name.

“As the College of Notre Dame becomes more complex and as we move into higher level graduate programs, we do look at it,” Seurkamp said of the prospect for a name change. “I don’t think there’s an obvious right answer to this. One could argue strongly for university, and one could argue strongly for college. Still, one can operate like a university and still have a strong commitment to the liberal arts."

 

 

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