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The name really is the thing

Ken Herman, Commentary

Published: 7:40 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 1, 2011

Southwestern University has a problem, maybe, according to its president. The 1,300-student school in Georgetown, which traces its history to the 1840 fouding of Rutersville College in Fayette County, is Texas' oldest university and long has been a Central Texas educational treasure.

The school's problem, maybe, is the name Southwestern University, which its had since 1875 (after five years as Texas University). It's a problem captured in the Wikipedia entry about Southwestern:

"This article is about the university in Georgetown, Texas, USA. For the university in the Philippines, see Southwestern University (Philippines). For other universities with a similar name, see Southwestern University (disambiguation)." At "Southwestern University (disambiguation)" you are told Southwestern University "may also refer to" a list of 16 universities with the word "southwestern" in their names, including five in Texas.

On top of that confusion is the fact that when some folks hear Southwestern University they think regional public university. Southwestern, a private school, views itself as a national liberal arts university. (Semi-related question: How come colleges never teach conservative arts? Bunch of commies, that's why.)

Here's Jake Schrum, Southwestern University president, talking recently about the name game with the American-Statesman's Ralph K.M. Haurwitz:

"Looking at our name and thinking about a national liberal arts college of real quality — is that a disconnect? The name Southwestern University sounds like a regional public university. It's that whole thing of having to explain so much that the quality of what we're doing here and the type of institution we are — not that we're wanting to become, but that we are — is lost in the shuffle."

Interrupting here. Northwestern University seems OK with its name. Back to Schrum:

"So the research is about finding out how much equity our name has, not only with our alumni, where it has a lot, but also with prospective students. I don't have a big need to change the name myself. Do I think it might help us? Yeah, I think it might help us."

Haurwitz then asked the key question: "What would you change it to?"

"I've thought of names," said Schrum, "but I'd rather not throw out those names right now. But I will say this: I think it would help us just to change our name to The Southwestern University — like The University of Texas, like The University of the South, like The Ohio State University."

Like The Bronx, or The Philippines, home of another Southwestern. Back to Schrum: "The point would be you could keep the name that the alumni love, but you could distinguish yourself from all of the regional public universities around the country and you could get a little bit of buzz by changing your name just by putting ‘The' in front of it."

Yes, and all you would need is a cheap "The" sticker to update your t-shirts.

Changing a university's name is a big-deal topic. Someone should write a dissertation on it. Hey, someone did. He is James Owston, a professor at Mountain State University (which is not a state university and in 2001 changed its name from the College of West Virginia). In 2007, he reported that 532 of the nation's 3,036 regionally accredited institutions of higher learning had undergone "at least one rebranding" from 1996 to 2005.

I asked Owston about changing Southwestern University to The Southwestern University. He was unimpressed.

"I'm really not sure what adding the article ‘the' does other than try to single out you're the only one," he said.

Yes, sometimes change has to be more profound. In July 2001, Beaver College in Glenside, Pa., became Arcadia University. Beaver College began in 1853 as Beaver Female Seminary in Beaver, Pa. When Beaver became Arcadia, then-President Bette Landman said the old name "too often elicits ridicule in the form of derogatory remarks pertaining to the rodent, the TV show ‘Leave it to Beaver' and the vulgar reference to the female anatomy."

Yes, yes and no comment (I need this job).

In 2009, Chapman University College in Orange, California became Brandman University. Why? The late Saul Brandman, whose foundation gave $10 million to the school.

Down in San Marcos, Southwest Texas State University became Texas State University in 2003. That seems to have worked out well. Second place for the new name was Surprisingly Big State University at Outlet Mall.

Let's hear your ideas about a new name for Southwestern. Feel free to propose naming the school for you. (Please enclose a check made out to the school.)

Best I can come up with is a name that pinpoints the location and carries an air of high-quality education: The University of Georgetown.

That's sure to draw a lawyer letter from Georgetown University in D.C., but these things can be worked out. Owston told me his Mountain State University reached an out-of-court settlement with the unrelated Mountain State College when the latter challenged the former's name change.

And let's not forget that Beaver College remains unused.

kherman@statesman.com; 445-3907


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8:27 PM on January 2, 2011

This comment is hidden because you have chosen to ignore bstrawn. Show DetailsHide Details

How about "THE Georgetown University", thus separating it from that other simply "Gerogetown University"?

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5:51 PM on January 2, 2011

This comment is hidden because you have chosen to ignore Teiresias. Show DetailsHide Details

What a waste of editorial column space!

The topic is better suited to John Kelso and the B section.

The name IS the thing here; and the name, or more exactly the phrase, is 'modern university president as CEO'.

A professor recently wrote me about his concern with "the generally increasing pig-headedness of university and college administrators and their values."

He concluded that "learning will survive despite the academy."

With folks like Jake Schrum at the top of elite institutions, who can be so sure?

What in the world is the president of one of the great private liberal arts colleges in our state doing spending his time and surely the time of his overpaid vice president and associate vice presidents and public relations officers worrying about the 'branding' of his institution and whether or not to make a definite article part of the official name or not?

It is a wasteful and thoughtless use of time and energy in an age that is facing overwhelming problems with education K through Ph.D. and on many other fronts.

But then again The University of Texas at Austin went through the same kind of 're-branding' a few years back.

Has anyone noticed it educating its students any better because it has a motto and a list of core values?

That is a rhetorical question. Perhaps the rhetorical question of this age of bloated university and college administrations.

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12:45 PM on January 2, 2011

This comment is hidden because you have chosen to ignore Antonious. Show DetailsHide Details

The University of Far North Austin......


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