By any other name

May 14, 2002

WESTERN Maryland College's decision to change its name after 135 years is further evidence of the degree to which money matters have thoroughly pervaded higher education. McDaniel College - the new name announced Friday - seems innocuous enough, but the forces that drove the change cannot be taken lightly.

WMC President Joan Develin Coley says the new name was necessary for her college's long-term survival. She fears that the school, despite its strengths, may not be financially strong enough to withstand the demographic downturn in college-age students expected later this decade. In that sense, this was an exercise in re-branding, much like marketers might do for a cosmetic line seeking to hold onto a profitable niche in a highly competitive marketplace.

At first glance, this would seem unnecessary for WMC. Applications to the Carroll County school from prospective freshmen, some of whom end up paying more than $25,000 a year to attend, were up by more than 20 percent this year. The liberal arts school's academic reputation has so grown that it's now considered a national, not regional, college - and competes with much more widely known schools.

In those match-ups, the connotations of "Western Maryland" - from the 19th century local railroad line - don't help. WMC is near a big city, not big woods. It's a private, not a state, school.

And these days, even colleges with state ties try not to stress that. So the Eastern Shore's Salisbury State University seeks to become tonier as Salisbury University, and Garrett Community College tries to take on a certain cache as Garrett College. Moreover, big state schools - like the University of Maryland, College Park - are wooing students who used to go to select private schools with small-scale honors colleges and big scholarships.

WMC's new name, which takes effect July 1, fits oddly with the nickname of its sports teams, the Green Terror, and it already has prompted a few fast-food "Mickey D's" jokes. But at least it reaches back into WMC's history to one of the school's own: William Roberts McDaniel, affectionately known as "Billy Mac," who embodied the school's values and spirit over 65 years as a student, professor, treasurer, acting president and trustee until his death in 1942.

As traumatic as the name change may have been at times for this cozy college atop a Westminster hill, McDaniel College - like many of the other small liberal-arts schools across the country - is apt to face many more potentially unsettling challenges in the years ahead.

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