Schools, colleges don't like those names anymore


October 18, 1994|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

In Maryland education, a rose by another name smells sweeter.

Consider how "college" gave way to "university" over the past 20 years, and how "school" is now giving way to the sweet redolence of "academy."

"College" began losing its cachet among the state's public institutions in the mid-1970s, when Morgan State College and Towson State College became universities. It didn't seem to matter that neither school then could be classified as a "university" under the definition generally accepted in higher education: that it give high priority to research and graduate education, grant 50 or more doctoral degrees a year and receive substantial sums for research from outside sources.

James L. Fisher, the outspoken Towson president, made his pitch for university status not on the grounds that his school met the standards but that the standards themselves were outmoded. "The German monolith . . . is no more the definition of a university than a 6-foot-tall red-haired Dane is the definition of a human being," he said.

Dr. Fisher also acknowledged that university status had public relations value for the former teachers college. Students would rather attend a "university" than a mere "college." The appellation would help Towson raise money and attract research funds, he said.

That opened the door.

When the state's public higher education system was reorganized in the late 1980s, every other institution -- except Coppin State College in Baltimore and St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland -- got in on the act.

The same thing was happening across the country. In neighboring Pennsylvania, every public institution, no matter its primary function or volume of research or number of graduate degrees conferred, is a university. North Carolina's public colleges became universities long before Maryland's did.

So there is no longer a distinction between "college" and "university," at least in the public mind. The University of Maryland College Park, with $117 million in contract and grant revenue last year, is a university. So is Salisbury State, with $1.6 million in grant revenue.

In the public schools the fad of the moment is "academy." It started last year when Milford Mill High School became Baltimore County's first academy, to be followed, if all goes well, by the Loch Raven Technological Academy for Environmental Sciences, Performing Arts and Visual Arts (currently Loch Raven Middle School), the Halstead Academy of Mathematics, Science, Technology and the Visual Arts (now Hillendale Elementary School) and Southwest Academy, now a part of Johnnycake Middle.

"I just thought it sounded classy," Loch Raven Principal Jack Wilson told Mary Maushard of The Sun, and that gets to the heart of the matter. "Academy" sounds so much better than "school," even if the new "academy" is doing exactly what the old "school" did.

"Academy," like "university," has a long tradition, and there are people who defend the purity of its definition.

The word derives from the Greek Academia, originally an olive grove of a local hero about two miles from Athens. There, Socrates started his academy. It's a long way from there to the Academy of Hair Design and Technology and the Academy Dog and Cat Hospital and the Loch Raven Technological Academy, all in the Baltimore area.

The academy movement flourished in the United States from the Revolution until after the Civil War. In their heyday, according to the late private school historian Otto F. Kraushaar, a Baltimorean and former president of Goucher College, the academies "functioned as a proving ground for several new trends in American education. . . . The well-established ones taught the elements of astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, botany, physiology and zoology."

The academy was also the precursor of the normal school, Kraushaar wrote, and many "remained for some decades the chief supplier of teachers for the common schools." The academies also were the first to provide schooling for young women, according to Kraushaar.

Many of the academies remain as exclusive college preparatory schools: Phillips Exeter, Deerfield and, in Cecil County, one of the oldest, West Nottingham Academy.

But the primary attraction of "academy" may be the word itself. It just slides off the tongue more smoothly than does the Latinate "school."

Think of Meade Academy (where students might have thought twice about rioting the other day). Think of Old Mill Academy. Centennial Academy. Francis Scott Key Academy. Joppatowne Academy. Stuart D. Berger, the Baltimore County superintendent of schools, recently told his administrators that "there are no schools left. They are all academies."

But those who are tempted to join the academy rush, should listen to a snippet of conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Wonderland. "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean," said Humpty. "But the question," Alice asked, "is how can you make words mean so many different things?"

"No," he replied. "The question is who is to be master of words."

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