Love for WMC/sp/guided selection of its new name

May 24, 2002|By Paul B. Miller

IT HAS been at once gratifying and troubling to follow the controversy over Western Maryland College's recent decision to change its name to McDaniel College.

As a professor there, I'm thrilled that so many people - alumni, students, area residents - care so deeply about my workplace.

Their expressions of anguish and excitement, regret, support, ridicule and even betrayal over the name change point to an emotional attachment to my employer that I must confess I had not fully appreciated until now. As someone who has been associated with Western Maryland for only four years, how could I not feel a sense of satisfaction and pride that the institution that defines me professionally means so much to so many?

The troubling part has been how some critics have turned their frustration with the name change (any change) into an attempt to discredit the painstaking work of the name-change committee, the college administration, even the trustees.

Accusations that the committee's selection process was rigged from the outset because the college pre-purchased the McDaniel Web site name (for all of a whopping $17) neglect to mention that this move pre-empted the appearance of potential Web site ransomers by reserving several other strong name candidates as well. More troubling is what this criticism says about the people who care most about Western Maryland College.

I was one of four faculty members on the name-change committee. If all of the over-agitated critics are right about the selection process - if our meetings were really no more than pro forma gatherings insidiously intended to make us feel as if we had a voice - then I would not be able to trust any of my colleagues. Their daily devotion to the institution goes far beyond what our angriest friends can claim. As someone whose personal and professional identification rested on the committee's decision, I can assure you that I had a voice, and I used it.

A critique that I find less objectionable than simply immaterial is that the name change is emblematic of a trend toward the commercialization of American colleges and universities; or as The Sun put it May 14, "of the degree to which money matters have thoroughly pervaded higher education."

Should this really come as a surprise? Perhaps it would do name-change critics, especially the wealthy ones, some good to know that Western Maryland wrestles with its budget annually and that it costs a great deal of money to operate a not-for-profit business with 406 employees, 40 buildings and 160 acres of grounds.

Moreover, if financial and marketing issues represent a new and troubling development in higher education, has anyone stopped to consider that our beloved institution was originally named for the corporation whose president provided its start-up funds - the Western Maryland Railroad? Back in the days of public transportation, when our students did not have to own a car to get into Baltimore, railways were the telecommunications and software companies of their time.

I would have been ecstatic if Bill Gates had made a substantial contribution to WMC, provided the sole conditions were that we call ourselves Gates College and continue to provide the exemplary liberal arts education for which we have been recognized nationally.

I suppose that's why it strikes me as ironic that some of the same people who have criticized the college for succumbing to a corporate mentality were the first to ridicule the new name as "Mickey D's."

While this only confirms the pervasiveness of our capitalist culture, it has denied too many people who love WMC the opportunity to appreciate the brilliant and inspiring life of William McDaniel. It's too bad that the names McDaniel and McDonald's are so similar.

Although McDaniel was fortunate enough to die, at age 80, 13 years before the hamburger chain first opened in 1955 (perhaps that's why he lived so long), his name has fueled the rage of those who criticized the change from the start and validated those willing to suspend judgment until they heard the result. Of course not everybody has to like the name.

I confess that the McDaniel name was not my first choice among those we forwarded to the trustees. But since so much of the criticism has been based purely on emotion and since I am the one who has to write McDaniel College on virtually every form and document I fill out, let me just add this:

However strongly people care about the college, I can assure you that those of us who go to work there every day share that genuine sentiment fully. That's why we're so excited about the new name.

Paul B. Miller is an assistant professor of history at McDaniel College.

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