The former two-year women's Catholic school in Baltimore County had come a long way, transforming itself into a multiple-campus university with professional graduate programs and a draw beyond Maryland.
But administrators worried that its name - Villa Julie College - didn't match. Years of market research commissioned by the school found that the name Villa Julie stubbornly sounded to prospective students and employers like a single-sex, religiously-affiliated place - even though the now-secular college went co-educational in the 1970s and has expanded beyond its main Stevenson campus to a large parcel in nearby Owings Mills.
"I think Villa Julie was up there with one of the worst college names in the country," said George Dehne, a marketing research consultant in South Carolina who conducted a large study for the campus. "It was a silly name, frankly. It doesn't mean anything to most people, it's hard to remember, and when we tested it, it came out a girls' school."
At a packed meeting room yesterday morning, students, faculty and administrators erupted into sustained applause as a banner was unfurled bearing the new campus moniker: Stevenson University.
Onstage, President Kevin Manning and board of trustees Chairman Kevin Byrnes looked relieved.
"I was overwhelmed at the emotional response," said Byrnes, the president of Provident Bank, afterward. "It's gratifying."
Still, many students and alumni were opposed to the name change, and Manning acknowledged that the process will be "traumatic" for some. "We are going to get some phone calls and letters," he said in an interview. But Manning predicted that the transition to the new brand will be relatively smooth.
"This is not going to be McDaniel," he said, referring to McDaniel College's tumultuous metamorphosis from Western Maryland College in 2002.
McDaniel's board of trustees didn't announce its decision until January of that year, and most of the campus community learned about it from media reports, prompting protest petitions and divisions on campus. Administrators also didn't divulge replacement candidate-names until announcing the selection of McDaniel in May.
Already,here was a Facebook group set up yesterday for Stevenson University, in which students vented about the name change. "I HATE the new name!!" wrote Jeff Clark. "It was my least favorite ... and makes me wanna transfer."
But some students were more sanguine about finding themselves at Stevenson U. "Now all my VJC shirts are vintage!" said Ken Abel. "Awesome."
Manning said that Villa Julie's decision to employ a years-long transparent process should prevent even detractors from feeling disenfranchised. The university shared the fruits of its research and analysis on the campus Web site and in four mailings to 20,000 community members over the years.
"It's definitely part of the strategy," said Scott McBride of Towson-based HCM Marketing Research, which conducted focus groups and interviews to help the trustees pick a winning name from among the finalists. "Getting so much feedback, internally, and from so many different groups."
Ultimately, Stevenson University tested best among almost all of the constituent groups surveyed: among them prospective students, their parents, business leaders and high school guidance counselors.
"Stevenson sounded like a name with prestige, like it had been around for a while," McBride said.
It also had the virtue of lacking any feminine connotation. McBride said campus officials were surprised to discover that about half of high school guidance counselors surveyed believed Villa Julie was a single-sex institution. Even 40 percent of local business executives thought it was still an all-female college, according to studies.
That is hurting student recruitment, particularly outside of Maryland, said Manning. About 70 percent of Villa Julie undergraduates are female.
The new university will retain its old name in one of its main undergraduate divisions, now called the Villa Julie College of Arts and Sciences. Manning said he expected the rebranding - changing campus signage, stationary and so forth - to take 12 to 18 months.
Students graduating in December and next May will have the option of receiving Villa Julie or Stevenson diplomas, and all alumni will be offered replacement Stevenson University diplomas, officials said. The school plans to apply for the Web domain stevenson.edu, and will continue to use vjc.edu in the meantime, said spokesman Brian Shea.
Unlike McDaniel, which is named for former Western Maryland College student, professor, administrator and trustee William Roberts McDaniel, the Stevenson name requires little explanation.
The most common approach to naming a college is after its location, Manning told the audience yesterday. "Oxford is in Oxford, Princeton is in Princeton," he said. "We thought that made sense here."
Plus, there is a felicitous connection between the name and Owings Mills.The founder of the now-affluent Stevenson neighborhood was Henry Stevenson, a Baltimore grain merchant who married the granddaughter of the Owings Mill founder.
Villa Julie was founded in 1947 as a school for medical secretaries and became independent of the Catholic Church in 1967.
It opened its doors to men in 1972 and began offering four-year degrees in 1984.