Consider the comma. At first glance, it might seem insignificant - a period with a tail, a raindrop in the wind, respected only by grammarians.
But the guardians of Baltimore's most prestigious art school think otherwise. The comma, they say, can loom very large, creating divisions where none exist, acting as a Berlin Wall of punctuation.
Which is why, after a year of deliberation, the Maryland Institute, College of Art is casting the comma aside.
As the fall semester kicked off this week, the word came down to returning professors and students: Henceforth, the art school in Bolton Hill will be the Maryland Institute College of Art - no comma, no pause, no division.
"We decided after all these years we could have an integrated whole," MICA President Fred Lazarus said. "We don't need the line in the middle anymore."
Name changes are nothing new in higher education - colleges are forever agonizing about how to improve their image or clear up confusion created by overlong titles. In 1997, Towson State University paid $200,000 to a New York firm to oversee its plans to drop the "state."
This year, Salisbury State University also dropped its "state" (at a much lower cost), becoming the regal-sounding Salisbury University in its quest for broader appeal. "Frankly, people were sick of the `Salisbury Steak' jokes," Salisbury President Janet Dudley-Eshbach said. "It got a little annoying."
It all comes down to branding, said University System of Maryland Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg, who before he came to Maryland oversaw a name change at the University of Illinois' Chicago campus. In Maryland, he presided over the addition of two commas - at University of Maryland, College Park and University of Maryland, Baltimore.
"You want public recognition," he said. "Academics are terribly vain, and prestige and status mean everything to them." But MICA's comma deletion might be in a class by itself, coming as it does at a small, offbeat institution that prides itself on a healthy disregard for the image preoccupations of other colleges. MICA officials were slightly abashed in announcing what they billed as their "streamlined" new name, as if afraid it smacked too much of a marketing ploy.
"We went through an unbelievably elaborate process to end up here," Lazarus said. "Having gone through the whole process, some of us said, `Shouldn't we be doing something more than dropping the comma?'"
Year of planning
It all started a year ago, when the 1,300-student college, which offers classes ranging from sculpture to digital imaging, launched a full-scale self-examination to prepare for its 175th anniversary this year. One of the top issues was whether to change the school's unwieldy name, which most students shorten to "MICA."
A Chicago consultant was brought in - MICA won't say at what price - to help poll alumni, students and prospective students. Focus groups and subcommittees considered: Would the school be better known as simply the Maryland Institute or the Maryland College of Art?
Both abbreviations were rejected. Each half of the name, it was argued, represented a part of the school's past - its beginning as an institute that instructed artisans in practical applications of their trade, and its development as a fine arts college in the 1960s, when the school began awarding degrees and took on its current name.
All anyone could agree on was dropping the comma, to unite the practical and artistic ends represented by each half of the name. Keeping the full name, sans comma, would allow students to keep using the MICA acronym, which officials deemed acceptable.
"We just want them both, `institute' and `college,'" said Doug Frost, the school's vice president for development. "We found out that people are really attached to both of the words."
Last week, large comma-less banners went up along Mount Royal Avenue, and school officials are trying to ingrain the new style in old-guard professors who still refer to MICA as "the institute."
Student reaction mixed
Students are giving the comma deletion mixed reviews. Sophomore Liz Grotyohann said the comma-less name would prevent people not familiar with MICA from thinking she attends a College of Art that is only part of a larger Maryland Institute.
But others say the comma will be missed. Without the brief pause it provided, the name will be a mouthful, said junior Carrie Warseck. "It's kind of long to say with one breath," she said.
And having two similar words, `college' and `institute,' next to each other is odd, freshman Ken Nock said. "There's no such thing as an institute college," he said. "It doesn't make any sense."
The fact remains, students said, that people outside Baltimore don't know what students are referring to when they say they attend MICA - something some students said they like because it makes them feel like part of a secret club. Freshman Dana Beuhler said her mother got blank looks when she tried to tell her Houston dentist what school her daughter attends.
"The name's just too long to begin with," she said.
MICA enjoys one advantage. With a small campus and few signs, it won't cost much to convert to a comma-less existence. Towson University spent thousands on new football uniforms, stationery and buses, but MICA spokeswoman Kim Carlin said the school won't replace supplies bearing the old name until they wear out.
Being an art school, though, MICA must confront an abstract conundrum: What happens to all the deleted commas?
"We're thinking of storing the comma supply in a conceptual building," Frost said. "We're going to conceive of a building and put all the commas there."