All in the name of recognition

Appeal: Western Maryland College officials continue quest for a name that will make the school sound more attractive to students and donors.

February 20, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Hundreds of current and former students at Beaver College in suburban Philadelphia thought they had the perfect new name for the small, private liberal arts college when administrators announced two years ago that the institution needed to change its name.

Their suggestion, "Grey Towers University," was inspired by the 100-year-old stone castle on campus. It made the short list of six names tested in focus groups around the country. But it didn't make the final cut.

"Although it was what struck a chord with alumni and students, people [outside the college] didn't know what it was," said Dennis L. Nostrand, vice president for enrollment management at the school, renamed Arcadia University in July. "They thought it was an old age home, a military institution, a chamber of horrors, something dull and dreary in the fog."

As Western Maryland College searches for a new name - one that better conveys its suburban Baltimore location and private status - Nostrand cautioned: "There's no such thing as a magic name. No matter what you come up with at least one-third of the people are going to say they don't like it."

In the six weeks since Western Maryland President Joan Develin Coley announced the Westminster college would change its name, the institution has received dozens of unsolicited suggestions. And it's looking for more: Last month, the college established a new Web site and sent out 24,000 postcards asking people to send in ideas for a new name.

Aside from retaining the word "college," school officials say they don't know what the institution will be called. WMC spent $200,000 to hire LipmanHearne, a Chicago-based marketing and consulting firm, to help.

Over the next few months, 30 administrators, faculty, students and alumni on the name change steering committee will develop criteria for the new name and build an inventory of hundreds of possibilities, says Robert M. Moore, president of LipmanHearne.

The group will mine the school's history, founders and geographical features for a name, and will consider names that describe the school's academic mission. However, many obvious appellations are already in use.

Westminster College and Carroll College are taken, Coley says, so naming it after the city or county is out of the question. "There's already Baker College. There's already Smith College," she added, alluding to major college donors - the Bakers of Buckeystown and Western Maryland Railroad founder John Smith.

"You name it, it probably already exists," she said.

Only about four colleges a year change their name completely, says Roland H. King, spokesman for the Washington-based National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, a trade group that represents 1,000 schools, including WMC.

Some colleges haven't had much of a problem picking a new name. When Jack Eckerd, founder of the Eckerd drugstore chain, gave the private Florida Presbyterian College in St. Petersburg more than $10 million in the early 1970s, it became Eckerd College.

Renaming Western Maryland after a donor with an open checkbook is not going to happen, because no such donor exists, Coley says. And she's not holding out for one, either. "The college's name is not for sale."

Arcadia University, which used a campus steering committee to make recommendations, says its new name evokes a place where people pursue "independent thought and inquiry," according to the school Web site.

"The goal is to find a name that's consistent with what we are," said Ethan A. Seidel, WMC vice president for administration and finance.

What WMC is, according to administrators and faculty, is a 1,600-student college that's proud of its small size and liberal arts education, not to mention the fact that it was termed a "college that changes lives" in a 1996 book by former New York Times education editor Loren Pope.

But the college's name - taken from the Western Maryland Railroad, a major benefactor at the time of the school's founding in 1867 - does not convey this message, Seidel says. Instead, it leads people to mistakenly believe it is a state school in the western portion of Maryland, hurting its ability to attract students and donors from outside Baltimore.

"People who know us know how good we are," Coley said. "The problem is, not enough people know us or take the time to get to know us."

Hundreds of people who know the college best - its alumni and current students - have protested the name change in phone calls, e-mails, letters and even an online petition with more than 1,400 signatures. Many say the institution's somewhat misleading name is part of its charm and to alter it would be a mistake.

Still, the college is moving forward.

After the naming committee narrows the list to a handful, these names will be tested with focus groups and researched to make sure they don't infringe on any trademarks, Moore says. Then the board of trustees will approve the new name.

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