Pitt Tells Student Groups Not to Use Pitt in Their Names

University says trademark covers the change.

September 13, 2019
 
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Student clubs at the University of Pittsburgh may have to go through rebranding changes to remove "Pitt" or "Panther" from their names, which could get costly.

Already there is a Change.org petition circulating opposing the proposed changes that has garnered over 760 signatures in a week.

According to the student who created the petition, the new guidelines would come into effect in fall 2020, and they would prevent students from using the term "Pitt" or the mascot "Panther" in their club titles.

"With 31 organizations using the term 'Panther' and 362 using the term 'Pitt,' this new rule is devastating to the brands and image of student organizations," the petition reads. "Many students dedicate their entire campus life to representing their school through these organizations and must be able to continue to do so."

Groups could amend their names by including the phrases "at the University of Pittsburgh" or "at Pitt," but they cannot appear to be sponsored by the university.

An emailed statement from communications manager Kevin Zwick read, "Many student organizations already comply with the 10-year-old guidelines, which allow the use of the Pitt and Panther names in ways that don't imply that the organizations are official university entities. Pitt's Office of Student Life and the Student Organization Resource Center continue to discuss concerns with our Student Government Board leadership to work toward a potential resolution."

Zwick maintained that the current guidelines for Pitt student clubs were as follows: "Independent student organizations are voluntary associations led by Pitt students, which are legally separate entities from the university. Because they are voluntary associations, independent student organizations may not use 'University of Pittsburgh,' 'Pitt' or any other University of Pittsburgh trademark/wordmark (i.e., Panther/Panthers) in their names other than to identify that the organization is located at Pitt (i.e., 'at Pitt' or 'at the University of Pittsburgh')."

Currently listed on the university's student organization page are dozens of club names that are in apparent violation of these guidelines.

The student who started the Change.org petition agreed to be interviewed as long as her identity and club affiliation were excluded, citing apprehension around retaliation by the university. She is concerned if her club speaks out against the policy, they may lose funding.

The student's club's name is in violation of the guidelines Zwick outlined, but she says that this issue was not addressed prior to a club leader orientation that occurred at the beginning of the semester.

The student said that the Student Organization Resource Center representative who hosted the mandatory meetings was unclear on the rules and switched between whether or not "Pitt" or "Panther" could be used in naming clubs.

The presenter was not forthright in answering questions on the naming guidelines, and it was unclear whether SORC will be assisting in the funding for the cost of changing club names and merchandise.

Clubs get their funding through SORC allocations, and some students are concerned about what this would mean for their funding stream.

The student who created the petition cited clubs whose current names are recognized internationally or have to follow a standard name formula for chapters of national organizations where the college name comes before the title (hypothetical example: Pitt A B C Club). These clubs would face challenges if the naming guidelines were enforced.

The student also said that clubs who had formed this year carrying the moniker "Panther" were approved without problem, and that club sports were allowed to use the wordmarks in their names.

"I think it was kind of unprofessional in the way it was handled," the student said of the announcement. "I think they are very naïve about how much this affects clubs."

She said the most common sentiment among students is that they are offended not because they have to change their names, but because of how much time they put into the club and making clubs presentable. She said that students feel like the university doesn't want to be associated with the clubs despite students showing pride by using the name "Pitt" or "Panther."

In 2016, the university updated its branding requirements to specify font and name placement for the Pitt script, resulting in clubs having to make adjustments to their promotional materials.

According to the Pitt website, the university boasts over 600 clubs. Clubs are considered independent of but closely related to the university.

Pitt is not out of the norm with this move -- universities like Yale University and the University of Washington have strict guidelines when it comes to using their names in club branding. Universities with similar branding rules prevent student groups from using the name of the university not within the context of location.

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