Naming and Branding
As colleges compete for status and students, many resort to a moniker change.
By Henry Petroski
Does a Rose by any other name sell as well? Maybe even better, if the story of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology is any guide. Founded in 1874 as the Terre Haute School of Industrial Science, the school was soon renamed the Rose Polytechnic Institute in honor of Indiana businessman Chauncey Rose, who was its leading founder and benefactor. In 1971, Rose Poly was renamed Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, thus recognizing the role of the Hulman family in enabling the school’s early expansion. For two decades, through 2018, Rose-Hulman was ranked No. 1 among engineering colleges not offering the Ph.D. degree.
Name changes among schools known for engineering are not at all uncommon. The California Institute of Technology, for example, was founded in 1891 as Throop University and went through successive name changes to become Throop Polytechnic Institute and Throop College of Technology before becoming Caltech.
The evolution of names of all kinds of American institutions of higher education continues to this day, especially among small private colleges that suffer from a lack of broad name recognition—brand strength, as consultants might label it. And for lack of a strong brand, they might experience a dearth of applicants, thus presenting a looming fiscal and consequent existential crisis.
Schools experiencing this might strive to gain a higher status and hence attract more talented students and their tuition dollars. Older students and foreign students, along with their benefactors, are believed to be especially susceptible to this strategy.
Perhaps the most common way of achieving better brand strength—that is, a better ability to compete for a share of a particular segment of the market for students—is to rename a college as a university. But this cannot be done simply by declaration. In Massachusetts, for example, to qualify for university status takes having graduate programs in no fewer than four distinct fields of study. This in turn means having a faculty that has the ability and credentials to offer graduate courses and supervise theses and dissertations, if the Ph.D. degree is to be granted.
In recent years in Massachusetts alone, Bay Path University, Bentley University, Simmons University, and Western New England University have come into existence by replacing “College” in their name with “University.” Soon to join the group are Assumption College in Worcester and Lasell College in Newton, each of which will promote itself to university status.
Wentworth Institute of Technology, another Massachusetts school, was recently granted university status, but it did not seek to change its name. The designation Institute of Technology or Polytechnic Institute already conveys enough status through its association with such distinguished schools as Caltech, MIT, and Rensselaer. This, in addition to its already strong brand, is no doubt why Rose-Hulman has seen no need to rename itself Rose-Hulman University. About a decade ago, when the University of Missouri–Rolla, changed its name to Missouri Institute of Science and Technology, it had to reject adopting Missouri Institute of Technology because the initialism MIT was already spoken for, and by a very well-established brand.
Other schools have retained the college designation even as they have grown in size and academic diversity. Thus, Boston College, Dartmouth College, and Smith College have seen no need to rename themselves universities. They already have achieved distinguished name recognition as they are. Besides, at least for Boston College, a prestigious Boston University already exists.
Proud alumni are seldom happy when their alma mater talks about changing its name, for they typically remember it fondly even if it was a small campus with no pretentions from which they received an excellent education. The alums may be polled on their opinion, but in the end that of a branding consultant is likely to carry more weight.
As much as we might wish it were otherwise, our institutions of higher education have become brand names that are protected to the fullest extent of the law. Not only is this important for them to attract high-quality applicants from far and wide, but also it enables them to challenge legally any unauthorized company making and selling paraphernalia displaying their proud and valuable brand. Big education has become big business.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University.
Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski