ANNAPOLIS – St. Mary’s College is the “public honors college” of Maryland, while the University of Maryland Baltimore County calls itself “an honors university in Maryland.” Morgan State University is “Maryland’s public urban university,” but nearby Towson University calls itself “the state’s metropolitan university.”
Welcome to the world of higher education marketing, a dimension where punctuation and implied meaning can prompt bitter battles for recognition in an increasingly competitive market.
“Subtleties that seem to be really important to us, to the rest of the world it doesnÕt seem to matter,” T. Sue Gladhill, vice president for external affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said.
Over the years, names, titles and slogans for the University System of Maryland’s 11 universities and two research institutions – not to mention the state’s 24 private schools – have been completely revamped, edited, tinkered with or tweaked.
Changes range from the less than earth-shaking substitution of a comma for “at” for the University of Maryland, Baltimore in 1997 to the complete name metamorphosis of Towson University.
Founded in 1866, Towson University began as the Maryland Normal School. James Brennan, provost of the university, said that as its mission and programs changed, the name evolved to match.
Maryland Normal School became Maryland State Teachers College at Towson, then Towson State College and finally Towson State University before it became state-less in 1997.
Ellen Stokes, associate vice president of university marketing, said that dropping the “state” from the university’s name was, in part, an attempt to add a bit of “prestige” to the university.
Indeed, some administrators go to great lengths to make sure their school is not considered a state university. Despairing that their name forever doomed them to being considered part of the state system, Western Maryland College officials decided that the private, liberal arts college in Westminster needed a whole new name.
Students and parents would experience “sticker shock” when they would look at tuition because they had been expecting state school prices, college officials said.
On top of that, the school is not even in Western Maryland, but in Carroll County, a far suburb of Baltimore. (Western Maryland College was named after a railroad company, not for the part of the state in which it was to be found.)
Thus McDaniel College was born.
Since the name change, the college is not as misunderstood and has stronger national recognition, Joyce Muller, associate vice president for communications and marketing for McDaniel, noted.
Becky Morehouse, associate vice president of research and marketing for Stamats, an Iowa-based marketing firm specializing in higher education, said that in recent years universities and colleges across the country have shown increased interest in brand development. “All colleges and universities have a need to communicate with prospective students . . . what is special about their institution, so we develop essentially brand messages that describe what we do,” Lisa Akchin, associate vice president for marketing and public relations for UMBC.
But in Maryland these marketing strategies are more than just a logo. They can become the center of heated debate over whether or not certain titles conflict with higher education policy or are even illegal.
Four universities have what are called “institutional titles” or names written into state law. University of Maryland, College Park is the “flagship;” St. Mary’s College is the “public honors college” and Morgan is “Maryland’s urban public university.” Last year, University of Maryland University College officially became “Maryland’s open university.”
At a committee meeting of the Maryland Higher Education Commission earlier this month, Clara Adams, special assistant to the president of Morgan, objected to the use of “metropolitan” in Towson’s mission statement because this identifier is too similar to Morgan’s legal designation as “Maryland’s public urban university.”
For Adams, the answer to the age-old question, what’s in a name?, is simple: Plenty.
She said the similarity in titles might indicate that Morgan and Towson have redundant missions – something the higher education commission is obligated to ensure does not happen and something that displeases legislators and governors.
And, Adams said, even though titles in a mission statement do not directly impact a school’s funding, mission statements are used to justify the programs that support these goals.
The issue is an important one for Morgan, the Northeast Baltimore university that is fighting to maintain its identity as an historically black college while attracting more whites to campus at a time when Towson and other white-majority schools can offer better-funded versions of Morgan programs, according to Adams.
Towson’s provost, James Brennan, dismissed Morgan’s complaints as “much ado about nothing” and suggested that Morgan officials are “blaming all of their woes on us.”
“I just think that Morgan should get a life and get over this,” Brennan said. “I find it amazing that people are actually considering it an issue.”
Nevertheless, this kind of fight can get serious enough that a higher education commission committee recommended that the commission conduct a study this summer to see how these “assumed titles,” which are descriptive phrases that do not appear in state law, impact the university system, said David Sumler, assistant secretary for planning and academic affairs for the commission.
“The implication is that if perhaps an institution wished to have a title it should apply to the legislature for official designation,” Sumler said.
Not all such duplications and hints of duplication cause hard feelings. What has caused a spat between Morgan and Towson hardly matters to two other schools that share a similar title, St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland and UMBC outside Catonsville.
Although “an honors university in Maryland” is commonly used by UMBC in its communications and merchandise, St. Mary’s College, the “public honors college,” doesn’t care, said Marc Apter, associate vice president of marketing and public relations of the college.
“We take it with a grain of salt,” he said. “We know they are a good school and they are good at promoting themselves . . . we also know that we are the only college designated [public honors college].”
Although Towson’s Brennan insists students “choose [schools] based on more than a superficial label,” other universities’ actions suggest names and titles are a major concern.
The Maryland Institute College of Art, which is a private college in Baltimore, dropped the comma between “institute” and “college” five or six years ago, Fred Lazarus, president of the college, said. One of the reasons they made this change was because the comma removal encouraged the use of the acronym, MICA.
The acronym, which has been commonly used since the punctuation change, has led to a “more cohesive representation” of the school as a private entity and has enhanced name recognition, Lazarus said. “If your name is Mary Jane and some people call you Jane and others call you Mary,” Lazarus said, “people arenÕt going to know [they] are talking about the same person.”