College aims name in a new direction

Westminster: Western Maryland College isn't that far west and isn't a state campus, so it seeks a new name telling what it is, not what it isn't.

January 12, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Western Maryland College in Westminster won't be called Western Maryland College for long, though what it will be called remains a mystery.

Tired of having prospective students think the college is in remote Western Maryland or assume it's a weak sister in the state university system, the private college's president and chairman of the board announced plans yesterday to find a new name.

They have hired an Illinois-based marketing firm for almost $200,000 to help with the six-month search.

"There's no doubt the name misrepresents what we are and hurts us with students who don't want to go all the way to Frostburg for school or who want to go to a private institution and think we're part of the state system," said President Joan Develin Coley.

Coley, who was inaugurated in April, called the current name an impediment to her vision of making the college one of the nation's finest liberal arts schools.

College leaders have talked about a name change for 30 years. The board of trustees made the final decision at its fall meeting, said Chairman James I. Melhorn.

"We take this action after decades of discussion and research that shows the current name is a nearly insurmountable obstacle to advancing the college's image and reputation on the national level," he said.

Coley and Melhorn said they spend too much time explaining what the college isn't. Such time is precious when it comes to potential applicants, each of whom offers about 20 seconds of attention on average, Coley said.

Even students with a strong interest have misconceptions about the distance from Baltimore. Coley said admissions officials know they must show up early at campus promotional events because families expect to drive for hours and therefore arrive quite early, stunned that the trip from Baltimore took only about 40 minutes.

Coley said the decision is not meant to disparage the western part of the state but said the region is "not perceived as a desirable location in the state by students."

She expects the volume and quality of student applications to increase with the new name.

The college enrolls about 1,600 undergraduates and receives more than 2,000 applications a year.

Similar colleges have improved their national profiles after name changes, Western Maryland leaders said. They pointed to Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., once called Southwestern at Memphis, as an example.

Long considered a regional college, Rhodes has vaulted into the top tier of liberal arts colleges since its name change in 1984, according to the college rankings by U.S. News and World Report.

The rise in stature and subsequent rises in the number and quality of applicants followed the name change almost overnight, said Tom Kepple, provost at Rhodes when the name was changed.

"I think all of us [colleges] have a pretty good idea who we are, but in some cases, the name just doesn't connote the type or quality of the institution," Kepple said. "I think that was the case at Rhodes, and I suspect it's the case at Western Maryland. It's amazing how positive a change you can make just by selecting a name that fits what you are."

Colleges have become more like corporations in their marketing acumen, said Rob Moore, president of LipmanHearne, the consulting firm that will work with Western Maryland on the name change.

"What's happened over the last five years is that colleges have developed a greater understanding that marketing is legitimate," he said. "As long as its wedded to the purpose of the college, it can really help tell students and alumni what the college is and wants to be."

In Maryland, the university system approved an array of name changes for its institutions in 1996. In one of those changes, Towson State University became Towson University, a move its president hoped would separate it from the state university system in the minds of applicants and donors.

Last year, Salisbury State University changed its name to Salisbury University. President Janet Dudley-Eshbach said at the time, "Frankly, people were sick of the `Salisbury Steak' jokes. It got a little annoying."

In perhaps the most minute change, Maryland Institute, College of Art dropped the comma from its name last summer.

Other schools have changed names to honor major donors. In 1992, industrialist Henry Rowan and his wife gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, which became Rowan College of New Jersey and is now Rowan University.

Founded in 1867, Western Maryland was named for Western Maryland Railroad, a major benefactor at the time. The college has no plans to change its mascot, seal, alma mater or school colors. But Coley joked that she expects a run on the school store as students seize the final sweatshirts, mugs and flags bearing the old name.

She and Melhorn announced the impending change to a crowd of faculty members, alumni and students yesterday. The college will also inform alumni, parents and students of its plans through letters and e-mails.

Coley said she heard no significant reaction immediately after the announcement but that she expects flak from alumni and students who identify with the name.

Alumni leaders have supported the decision. "The current name is something we've had to overcome, not a positive," said Phil Enstice, alumni association president.

Many students have yet to return from winter break, but those interviewed on campus yesterday offered mixed reactions.

"I think it's good that they're changing it, because every time I tell someone I go here, they assume I go to school way out in the far west," said Calvin Woodward, a sophomore from Baltimore.

Sophomore Lauren Cramer of Barrington, N.J., stared down at her sweatshirt, with "Western Maryland" emblazoned on it in green and gold, before scrunching her face and saying of the planned change, "I don't like it."

Cramer said she never thought about the college's name while making her selection.

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