What's in a Name?

One Mount St. Mary's sues another, citing trademark issues as institutions on opposite coasts compete for students -- and status -- online.

June 23, 2015

One university in Maryland isn’t willing to share -- its name, that is.

Mount St. Mary’s University, located in Emmitsburg, Md., is suing Mount St. Mary’s University of Los Angeles for trademark infringement, claiming that the California institution was unlawfully using the trademarks and trade names of the East Coast university.

Both institutions have coexisted peacefully until now, but that ended when the California location changed its name from Mount St. Mary’s College in January.

“MSMULA was never given authorization by MSMU to use Mount St. Mary’s University, Mount Saint Mary’s University, The Mount and MSMU in connection with educational services,” reads a statement from the Maryland university. “Documented market confusion has developed as a direct result of MSMULA’s unauthorized use of MSMU’s intellectual property.”

A spokesman for Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, Christian Kendzierski, said the confusion began with the name change earlier this year, and that his institution reached out to the other on two separate occasions, to no avail.

“We just want to make sure in the market that when someone’s looking for Mount St. Mary’s University, they’re getting the right Mount St. Mary’s,” he said. “I think it speaks to good business sense and branding and that’s important.”

Debbie Ream, a spokeswoman at Mount St. Mary’s University of Los Angeles, declined to comment because the university is reviewing the complaint with its counsel.

Two or more universities sharing the same moniker is no strange phenomenon. A simple Google search of “Concordia College” or “Concordia University,” one of the more popular college names, reveals a list of more than half a dozen independent institutions. None of the Concordias has filed lawsuits against another for trademark infringement in recent history. However, when the Georgia Board of Regents renamed a consolidated university Georgia Regents University, officials at the private Regent University in Virginia sued because they felt the names were too similar. The case was ultimately dropped.

And for the Los Angeles Mount St. Mary’s, sharing a name is not unmapped territory. Until it adopted the university title, the name shared a striking resemblance to Mount Saint Mary College in New York, although the college’s spokeswoman, Jane Hanley, was sure to point out the differences between the two names, including “Saint” being spelled out and no possessive apostrophe after “Mary.” She said when search engines were first beginning, a person searching for one institution would occasionally be directed to the other, but the instances have become less frequent over time.

Bob Johnson, the president of the higher ed marketing firm Bob Johnson Consulting, said that while the lawsuit states that the use of the name in Los Angeles hurts the reputation of the institution in Maryland, the status of each university would be strongest in its respective immediate geographic area.

“It is possible for a school in Los Angeles and a school in Maryland to develop programs and run campaigns to succeed on a national level,” he said. “In that case, it’s better for either one of them right now if only one of them had the name.”

He also noted that if both institutions are pursuing adult learners interested in taking online courses, it could lead to some confusion because geography doesn't play as large a factor in online learning.

Stephanie Geyer, the vice president for web strategy and interactive marketing services at the higher ed consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz, said according to a survey completed by her company last month, 87 percent of all high school juniors and seniors find institutions they may be interested in by searching the name of the institution in a search engine. (Disclosure: Inside Higher Ed is owned in part by Quad Partners, which also in a separate investment owns part of Ruffalo Noel Levitz.)

She said prospective students could get lost between the web pages of the two universities because higher education websites tend to look similar, even though the two institutions have distinct logos and websites.

“Some say that as more and more prospective students start college searches on the web, on Google in particular, having a strong brand present, having a strong SEO strategy and keeping on it long term is absolutely essential,” Geyer said.


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