Initial Impressions

As UMBC turns 40, some wonder if its abbreviation and word county in its name are holding it back

October 11, 2006|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,Sun reporter

Upperclassmen sum up the school to newcomers as "U Made the Best Choice" or "U Must Be Crazy." Some students, reflecting on frequent infrastructure improvements on their campus, describe their school as "Under Major Building Construction." And there are other variations of the school's initials, among waggish student bloggers, of even more questionable taste.

Jordan Hadfield, the student government president at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, thought almost everyone knew what his school's initials really stood for. That is, until he walked along the deck of a cruise ship last summer proudly sporting his favorite UMBC fleece and scores of passengers approached to ask, "What's UMBC?"

That left the senior from Dundalk to describe his school in detail - a practice UMBC officials had hoped would end when they all but dropped the long-winded name for its initials more than a decade ago.

The school's reputation isn't obscure. This month, UMBC celebrates its 40th anniversary, and like most fortysomethings, it is embracing a forged identity - having gone from an exceptional regional institution to a highly competitive feeding ground for such graduate schools as Harvard, Stanford and MIT. Internet sites have ranked it among the most ethnically and racially diverse campuses in the country.

It has been the school's hope that some day UMBC will enjoy the same household name status as UCLA and USC. Officials at UMBC in 1995 added the subtitle, "An honors university in Maryland," to denote its location and reflect its aim to draw top-notch students.

But, sometimes, it appears that hasn't been enough. Hadfield said some classmates, pressed to explain the school's location, even began referring to it as UCLA - for "University of Catonsville, Left of Arbutus." At a recent parliamentary debate tournament at the school, competitors from Harvard, Yale and NYU pronounced the name of their host as "Umbuck."

That probably wasn't what officials and legislators envisioned when the school was founded in 1966. As UMBC reflects upon four decades of progress and ponders what lies ahead, doubts about the name linger for some supporters.

"UMBC is an extremely impressive institution, and they've made huge strides. In an ideal world, should they have a different name? Yes," said Mark Neustadt, a consultant who advised the school in 1995 when it decided to refer to itself as UMBC instead of University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "But is [the name] worth going through the trouble of a change? Probably not.

"You expend a lot of capital changing a name," Neustadt said. "And you're talking about an institution whose lifeblood depends on the good will of the legislature."

Beyond the Baltimore-Washington area, the college's initials are not that recognizable, except for within academic circles. Lisa Akchin, the school's associate vice president for public relations and marketing, said the first response to the subtitle in the school name often is, "That sounds impressive, but what's an honors university?"

She said the state school took on the name, in part, as a testament to the efforts of Baltimore County legislator James Pine, who played a major role in its establishment.

"They knew in the beginning that it was a lengthy name," she said, "but they believed that internally and formally UMBC would become known."

To complicate matters, the school shares the University of Maryland moniker with three other institutions. One is the state's flagship public university in College Park, which in most circles is referred to as the University of Maryland. There's also the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB), the public academic health, human services and law institution downtown, and the historically black University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne. All four schools are part of the University System of Maryland.

UMBC gained some fame in 2002 after the Kaplan/Newsweek "How to Get Into College" guide proclaimed it a "hot school," along with more recognized schools such as the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Boston College.

The 2007 Fiske Guide to Colleges called UMBC "a mid-sized public university with the feel of a private." This year's freshman class posted an average SAT score of 1215 and a 3.6 grade-point average. Forty percent of UMBC undergraduates go on to graduate school.

UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, widely credited with the school's rise, began implementing his vision of a first-rate institution when he took over in 1992. He says the school's name is well-regarded enough in academia that if he wore a UMBC fleece in downtown Los Angeles, he's certain any college faculty or administrator would recognize the name.

"But beyond that group, it would be questionable," Hrabowski acknowledged. "How does the public tend to know about institutions? Through athletics."

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