What's in a Name?

December 15, 2006

With new ownership, new management and a new location, Pacific Western University also has plans for a new title -- California University. Located in San Diego, Pacific Western is an unaccredited, for-profit institution of distance learning. An official of the university says that it is changing its name because it is linked with past controversies, unlike the new name, which some think will sound a bit too much like the University of California.

Contacted at his office, Dean Dominic Mwenja said that Pacific Western had incorporated the name “California University” in 2004. At that time, PWU also operated an institution in Hawaii that shared the same faculty.

Following an investigation by Hawaii’s Office of Consumer Protection, PWU-Hawaii was enjoined from making any claims that it was authorized by the state to confer academic degrees. The university was required to pay $30,000 for the investigation, although the owners did not admit any wrongdoing. PWU-Hawaii no longer exists.

Mwenja said that the two institutions were run by the same owner, but that Pacific Western University was sold in 2004 and that the new owners want nothing to do with the Hawaiian institution. He added that he has hired completely different faculty in the last six months. “California University has more value,” he said. “And given the history, we’re tired of these questions. We just want to move forward.” Mwenja stated that Pacific Western University has applied for accreditation and that he expects the university to be accredited by next summer.

When asked if he felt the change to “California University” might create confusion with other similarly titled institutions, he replied, “No. I don’t.”

The name “California University” is held also by California University of Pennsylvania, a comprehensive institution that is part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. The university is located in California, Pa., and officials at the campus chose not to comment for this story.

When informed of Pacific Western's plans, officials at the University of California said they were looking into the situation. “This reportedly proposed use could create a ‘likelihood of confusion,’ which is the test for trademark infringement,” Jennifer Inez Ward, a spokeswoman for the University of California system, said in an e-mail message. The name “University of California” is protected by California state law and is also a trademark protected under federal law. Ward said that UC regularly sends out cease and desist letters to entities using the name in an unauthorized manner.

In the past, the UC has been successful in preventing similar names from being adopted and or used, she said. “[A]nd on at least one occasion, [we] successfully sued an entity for a confusing name,” she said.

Alan Contreras, an administrator with the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, noted that Pacific Western grants many of its degrees to people in Asia, where the distinction between the “University of California” and “California University” will be lost in translation. “It’s a perfectly rational business decision,” he said of the move by PWU to change its name. “Because people who see this are going to think it is the UC.” Contreras added that California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education will have to approve the switch in title.

Sheila Hawkins, a program administrator with the bureau, said that the name will probably be approved. "Based on what I've seen so far, there's nothing to preclude them from calling themselves that,” she said in an e-mail message.
 
Pacific Western dates to 1977. In September 2004, investigators with the United States Government Accountability Office released a report titled "Diploma Mills." In it, federal investigators wrote that they had posed as prospective students and placed phone calls to three institutions, including Pacific Western, to inquire about degrees. Institution representatives emphasized to the investigators that “they are not in the business of providing, and do not permit students to enroll for, individual courses or training. Instead, the schools market and require payment for degrees on a flat-fee basis.”

And foreign newspapers have reported on the travails of numerous individuals with credentials from Pacific Western. Last summer, an Australian newspaper discovered that the former judge Marcus Einfeld, a national figure in the country, touted a Ph.D. from PWU. And in late 2005, Barry McSweeney was forced to resign from his position as chief science adviser to the Irish government after he refused to make public his doctoral thesis from PWU.

Meanwhile, newspapers in Korea report that lawmakers and police have opened an inquiry into more than 150 high-ranking national figures who have received degrees at unauthorized foreign colleges. The Korea Times reported that 34 of those individuals received doctorates from Pacific Western. Those officials currently work at the education ministry and an agency affiliated with the Ministry of Science and Technology.

 

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