What’s In a (University) Name?

30 April 2007 at 10:35 pm 10 comments

| Peter Klein |

An organization’s name is an important part of its identity. Names can also be valuable signals to market participants about mission, values, and strategy. Certainly, names seem to matter: a 2001 paper by Michael J. Cooper, Orlin Dimitrov, and Raghavendra Rau, “A Rose.com by Any Other Name,” documented a positive and significant stock-price reaction to announcements of adding “dot-com” to company names. (No word on the reaction to the reverse, as when Monster.com changed its name to Monster in 2003.)

Two universities in my state have gotten into the act. In 2005 Southwest Missouri State University changed its name to Missouri State University to reflect a more national orientation. (In most US states the “University of XYZ” is the original state university and “XYZ State University” is the newer, land-grant institution; in Missouri, however, the land-grant designation was given in 1870 to the already-existing University of Missouri, officials of which strongly opposed giving the name Missouri State to a rival institution.) Now the University of Missouri system has announced that the University of Missouri-Rolla, one of four campuses in the state system (and home of guest blogger Chihmao Hsieh), will change its name to Missouri University of Science and Technology. The name change is “is part of chancellor John S. Carney III’s goal of making UMR one of the nations top 5 technological research universities by 2010,” according to a news release. But will it smell as sweet?

Update: My old college classmate Jim  Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, wrote about corporate name changes for Slate back in 1997.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Institutions, Management Theory, Strategic Management.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chihmao Hsieh  |  1 May 2007 at 2:24 am

    Yeah, I was actually going to blog about this last week, even prefacing with the same kind of published work cited by Peter but this one by Peggy Lee, but thought I’d put the post on hold. Might as well chime in now…

    The proposal for a name change was pretty controversial on campus. I won’t bog any of you down with the details, they’re all already here if this kind of stuff turns you on.

    First things first, the University of Missouri-Rolla (UMR) is a well-respected engineering-oriented school. Not exactly the same feel as my undergrad and master’s alma mater, but I believe UMR is actually a somewhat underrated university, especially for grad school. Those elsewhere in the country who have associated with the school know its strengths, and I highly doubt that this name change diminishes the recognition or reputation in the eyes of those engineers, scientists, scholars and/or administrators because they will be readily informed of the name change.

    (The current UMR administration believes that this will undoubtedly attract more applicants, especially for undergraduate programs. While I used to agree completely, I feel now that the success of the name change depends crucially on the subsequent marketing effort.)

    However, the additional challenges imposed by the name change are particularly significant for the School of Management and Information Systems, where I’m a faculty member. The SMIS is very young, only about 5 years old. We had our first MBA incoming cohort ever this past January, and we are also now currently in the midst of seeking AACSB accreditation.* Yet in the past I would have been able to introduce myself to business academics and some would recognize the UMR name from their brief exposure to the engineering school (e.g. esp. those who study innovation).

    So let’s keep it real: Now, likely, any uninitiated, unassisted attention I could attract at academic business conferences due to an association with an obviously legitimate institution (i.e. the University of Missouri system) is now gone. People will look at my nametag and see “Missouri University of Science & Technology” and look at me as if I were from a 2-year vocational institute. I guess this is a good time to brush up on those conference paper presentation skills!

    A possibly tougher climb lies ahead.**

    * The experience of helping to build a school from the ground up appears to be a valuable one thus far.

    ** Not to mention that the University is also coincidentally concurrently undergoing this major change, whereupon I will no longer be affiliated with a School but only a Department. When it rains, it pours.

  • 2. Dick Langlois  |  1 May 2007 at 9:07 am

    Don’t forget Truman State, which was (I think) Northeast Missouri State. A friend of mine used to teach there, and he explained that the change signalled a focus on becoming the “small liberal arts college” of the state system. The original name of Princeton University was the College of New Jersey. A few years ago, Trenton State changed is name to — the College of New Jersey, also with the strategy of becoming the small liberal arts college of the state system.

    In the east, state universities have a somewhat different history because of the early dominance of private universities. UConn was always the land-grant school, starting as Storrs Agricultural College, becoming Connecticut State College, and then the University of Connecticut. (I was surprised to learn that the Husky mascot was actually chosen during the “College” phase, as I had always assumed it was an obvious play on “Yukon.”)

    Our State University system grew out of the teachers colleges or “normal schools.” They followed the fashion in the sixties and seventies for schools with charming local names to adopt the title “university” along with a bureaucratic regional designation. So Willimantic Normal School (very near UConn) became Eastern Connecticut State College then Eastern Connecticut State University. I suspect the administration now wishes they could call it something like “Willimantic College,” as they also want to be the small liberal arts college of the state system.

  • 3. Donald A. Coffin  |  1 May 2007 at 2:18 pm

    Moving away from universities for a moment (and there are tons of examples for universities). Just how well did that whole Navistar name change work out, anyway?

  • 4. Cliff Grammich  |  2 May 2007 at 10:06 pm

    Interesting stuff. In Illinois the naming situation is slightly reversed. Illinois State University in Normal was founded first as the Illinois State Normal University and the University of Illinois, the land-grand university, was founded later in Urbana. The situation is also somewhat reversed in Texas, with the land-grant school, A&M, being the older one, and Aggies derisively referring to the younger school in Austin as Texas University or TU (because A&M, being older, is THE university of Texas . . .).

    I’m intrigued by the shift from Northeast Missouri to Truman State, and from Trenton State to College of New Jersey, as well as what Dick Langlois says may be the ebbing of the tide to make everything a university. I had thought this was still going strong, as demonstrated by Illinois Benedictine College’s decision a few years ago to become Benedictine University, as well as by the fact that only five Div I-A schools–apologies for the sports reference–do not have “university” in their title. (Answer below for those wanting to test their knowledge of sports trivia.) Even Georgia College in Milledgeville is now known as “Georgia College and State University” (not to be confused with Georgia State University in Atlanta). I think he’s right that more charming local (and less bureaucratic regional) names could help in marketing.

    (I hope, Peter, you don’t think I’m making your comments section a flippant place, but here’s the sports trivia answer for those interested: Boston College, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the U.S. Air Force Academy. I suspect Boston College would change names if it could, but Boston University already exists, of course.)

  • 5. Peter Klein  |  2 May 2007 at 10:16 pm

    Cliff, sports trivia is always welcome at O&M.

    A couple of additional examples: A few years ago I did an external program review for New Zealand’s Auckland University of Technology, which had just changed its name from Auckland Institute of Technology. (In the Kiwi system the “University” designation constitutes a different formal institutional category, so the name change was not merely cosmetic.) And of course the DeVry Institute, for several decades the leading US provider of vocational and technical training, was re-christened as DeVry University.

    When will that small technical college in Cambridge, Mass. realize that MUT is much more prestigious than MIT? :-)

  • 6. Cliff Grammich  |  2 May 2007 at 10:44 pm

    Well, thank you, Peter.

    Some other examples come to mind. Locally, Aurora College is now Aurora University. In eastern Kentucky, Morehead State University was once Morehead State College.

    More generally, Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/College) notes:

    “In 1996 for example, Georgia changed all of its four-year colleges to universities, and all of its vocational technology schools to technical colleges. (Previously, only the four-year research institutions were called universities.) Other states have changed the names of individual colleges, many having started as a teachers’ college or vocational school (such as an A&M — an agricultural and mechanical school) that ended up as a full-fledged state university.”

    Sounds like there may be a little name “inflation” occurring at some schools. Although, to be fair, I guess I can see why some schools chafe at the “college” designation. Benedictine U., for example, does have some graduate programs that I guess a prospective student wouldn’t infer from a “College” title . . .

  • 7. Dick Langlois  |  3 May 2007 at 11:58 am

    Cliff, you’re certainly right about the general trend. Near us Quinnipiac College (a private school) recently became Quinnipiac University. But I wonder if the trend is on the wane in favor of specialization (science and tech, small liberal arts college). Most of the places that have “upgraded” to university in the last three or four decades are in the lower half of the prestige distribution, which means their mission (market) is often broader than that of a four-year college, so becoming a university allows them to be more inclusive (attract more customers) . But as population and income rise, and as university-style services become more widely available, it starts to pay to specialize as a way of moving upscale.

    Another interesting devleopment is that, at the high end, a numberof state schools are essentially trying to “go private.” I was talking to someone from George Mason about this recently. Virginia and William and Mary have sufficient prestige and endowment that on the margin they now prefer greater autonomy from the state over funding from the state. By contrast, GMU (and UConn, for that matter) are still hungry to lap up whatever the state puts in the trough (even though we, and no doubt GMU, are also working for greater autonomy as well).

  • 8. Bo  |  6 May 2007 at 2:52 pm

    Just to add to the sports stuff, I was amazed to see Wright State University make it far in this year’s NCAA tournament – it made me wonder – as a foreigner – where exactly Wright State is and how it got its name:

    Wikipedia came to the rescue:

    Founded in 1964, Wright State University was originally the Dayton branch campus of both Miami University and The Ohio State University. At that time it comprised only a single building, Allyn Hall (named for Stanley Allyn, then-president of National Cash Register and one of the university’s founders).

    A 1965 an act of the Ohio General Assembly created the university. Several names were considered, including Dayton State University, Southwest Ohio State University, Shawnee University, Four Rivers University (after the four nearby rivers: the Great Miami, the Mad, the Stillwater, and Wolf Creek), and Mad River University. Wright State University was eventually chosen to honor the Wright Brothers, natives of Dayton.

  • 9. Chihmao Hsieh  |  22 October 2007 at 1:39 pm

    As some of you know, I’m an instructor at U. of Missouri-Rolla. Specifically, I teach both “Strategic Management” and a “Capstone Course in Business.” In this Capstone Course required of all management students, the class forms into teams, craft business proposals, present them to our local bank, launch, operate, and exit… all in one semester.

    This semester, one of the Capstone Course teams has tackled an apparel-oriented business venture aimed at helping UMR students, faculty, and staff to express themselves. Basic t-shirt designs they are not. Instead, the team has identified a need on our campus: that we really don’t have our own culture. We don’t have popular sports teams, and we’ve even had this ‘name change’ transition to endure.

    The students came up with a clever design for one t-shirt that they expect to sell well. It takes the new MST logo found here (http://news.umr.edu/news/2007/mstlogo.html) and parodies it here (http://must-wear.com/). See top left design.

    It’s bound to be controversial. My dean supported it, and the bank was willing to fund it as long as that top left design wasn’t sold on campus grounds. Later today I’ll be interviewed by the school newspaper. Oh the fame.

  • 10. john  |  8 August 2013 at 9:55 pm

    Father taught at UMR, grew up in Rolla a name change will never change my view of UMR and Joe the Miner…

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