It's all in the name - Pt. 2

BlueRaiderZone.com takes an in-depth look at Middle Tennessee State University's name and the issues surrounding the ongoing debate about changing it by looking at institutions that have changed their name, the reasons behind their decision, and what happened after the dust settled on those institutions new name. Part 2 of 2

University of North Texas
Perhaps there isn't a better example of what proponents of the name change want than what North Texas State did in 1988. It simply dropped "state" from its name and became a "University of" institution.

Officials from UNT identified three reasons why it changed the name. The same year that UNT made the name change it was to be designated an emerging research institution by the state of Texas. The name change was - at its core - designed to enhance the universities reputation by better reflecting UNT's prestige as a growing national research institution. The secondary reasons for the change were to capitalize on that objective in hopes of generating more research funding, and it was believed a more prestigious university would presumably enhance fundraising efforts from outside donors.

Although increasing grants and fundraising weren't the primary drivers they were seen as probable secondary benefits. In fact, UNT's experience validated just that in the years following the name change. In the six years prior to the name change, endowments averaged $1.57 million annually with the largest single year producing just over three million dollars.

In the 12 years following the name change, UNT fundraising efforts averaged just over $6.2 million. The largest single year UNT raised $11.1 million through its fundraising efforts. Although the growth seems to coincide with the time of the university's new name, caution should be exercised in drawing a direct cause and effect correlation between the two. According to a university official the designation as an emerging research institution played a role in UNT's increased exposure and reputation that led to the significant growth over such a short period of time. However, it is difficult – at the same time – to simply dismiss the raw numbers.

As UNT has continued to grow (now over 36,000 students), it has set its sights on becoming a Tier 1 institution. It would put UNT on par with the University of Texas and Texas A&M academically in the state. And the University has a 10-year plan to get there, which was unveiled earlier this year. The question that can never be answered is whether UNT would be in the same position it is now if it were still North Texas State University?

When looking at grants, it's likewise difficult to draw any legitimate comparisons with the name change and the university's ability to generate grant funding. There is no debate that grants increased in the years following the name change, but once again it is a matter of comparing apples to oranges. It's a reasonable assumption that grant increases were due in large part to the institution being classified as an emerging research institution. That distinction alone would drive research grants higher as the university capitalizes on its recognition as a growing national research brand.

Most impressive about the steps UNT has taken is that it has looked at its institution from A to Z and undertaken measures to enhance the brand, public awareness and the perception of the University. The grants are indicative of that. In fact, in the last few years alone, UNT research grants have increased from approximately $23 million to over $37 million from 2007 to 2009, and the University projects by 2020 that it will take in over $160 million in state, federal, and private grants.

Analysis: It can't be dismissed out of hand that significant increases in fundraising occurred at the University in the years following the name change but neither can one draw a simple cause and effect relationship. It's perhaps arguable that UNT achieved its desired objectives by changing the name, but there were external factors and variables that played into increases in endowments and grants.

At the end of the day, only time will tell if all of the steps taken by the University translate into an invitation into a more prestigious athletic conference. There's no question that UNT sits in a desirable media market nestled in the back yard of the fifth largest in the nation, so the university is set up nicely in two of the most important factors. Unfortunately for UNT its football program is going through one of its most difficult stretches in its history. But football programs can turn corners of success and perception a lot faster than an institution can change the perception about its academic prestige. UNT as an emerging national research institution and its large media market provides it with a better opportunity to emerge from the have nots of collegiate athletics to the haves than most would like to give it credit for.

Troy University
Like MTSU and all of the institutions evaluated for this piece, Troy started out as a normal school (Troy State Normal School), and like MTSU it has gone through a number of changes. The most recent change occurred in 2004 after the university commissioned a study by Stamats to examine its place as an evolving institution at the turn of the 21st century.

"One significant research recommendation was to update the name of our university so it better reflects the University's expansion that has grown well beyond the borders of its founding state of Alabama," said Troy's Chancellor, Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr., in a 2004 press release.

Troy is a bit of a unique institution as it was one of the early adopters of distance learning. Troy has nearly 31,000 students with over 60 learning sites across the world. Nearly half of all students educated by Troy University enroll in distance learning courses.

In line with Troy's commitment to distance learning, Dr Hawkins explained further in a statement that, "Our university leadership believes that the name Troy University more accurately reflects our worldwide mission."

During this same period, Troy underwent some significant change to rebrand itself. One such strategic move that occurred around the same time was the consolidation of three separately accredited institutions within the Troy State University System into one single university, which had an immediate impact on fundraising efforts.

But there is an underlying theme that shaped Troy's decision-making process that proponents for a different name at MTSU will latch onto in their argument. The Troy administration ultimately agreed with the key finding in Stamat's research – to drop "state" from the name – giving validation, at least on the front end, to the impact those five letters had in the name and the benefits the university could expect without it.

To be more specific, information gleamed from Stamats research and expounded on by the University at the time indicated that possessing "state" in the name had a potentially quantifiable impact.

According to the former Senior Vice Chancellor of Advancement and External Relations, Cameron Martindale, "Each name change (at Troy) has been driven by the expanding role and scope of our University. Our research tells us that having the word ‘state' in our name implies that we rely primarily on state government funding. "In reality, only 23 percent of our budget comes from the state. In turning to private donors for support, this perception of full state funding can have a negative impact, as many assume that our needs are sufficiently covered by government appropriations."

The question is whether there is anyway to validate this assessment? The numbers tell one story, but the reasons behind those numbers tell another. Troy has indeed seen a significant increase in fundraising – four times more to be specific – compared to the five years prior to the change.

In the area of grants, it is a similar experience. Troy has seen their intake go from just over $4 million in 1999 to over $14 million in 2009.

Certainly, those numbers are compelling evidence to validate one of the purposes for changing the name, but it's not as simple as it would appear on the surface. "We believe the name change was helpful in growing our brand, but I would be cautious in attributing our success in fundraising to the name change," said Dr. Jean W. Laliberte, Associate Vice Chancellor for Development. "There are simply too many other variables that likely had a much larger impact."

Dr. Laliberte attributed much of the growth to not only the aforementioned changes at the university such as consolidating three separate entities into one university, but also other efforts that likely went unnoticed to the casual observer such as tripling the number of gift officers from only two prior to the name change to six today.

Other factors include the lack of a formal campaign that did not exist until one was initiated in 2006, two years after the name change, which has had a more measurable impact according to Dr. Laliberte.

Analysis: Due to all of the variables that existed about or at the same time Troy dropped "state" from its official designation, it's extremely difficult to evaluate the merits the name change had on fundraising and grants. Much like UNT, Troy has undergone major evolution in the past decade, and the name change is but one of the factors university officials recognized as a means for accomplishing their broader overarching goals.

But also much like UNT, the name change was a cornerstone for improving the stature and prominence of the university as it attempted to rebrand its image as a dynamic and evolving academic institution.

University of Memphis
The early years at Memphis aren't all that different than MTSU. In fact, at the same time MTSU was Middle Tennessee State Normal School, Memphis was known as West Tennessee State Normal School. And if your curious and don't already know there was indeed an East Tennessee State Normal School now known as ETSU. Now that everyone is thoroughly confused, only Memphis has been lucky enough in the state to purge itself of both "state" and its directional reference."

The last of those occurred in 1994 when Memphis State became the University of Memphis. According to university officials, the reason behind the change to its current U of M is quite a bit more simplistic than UNT or Troy. In fact, the change at Memphis came essentially to separate itself from the plethora of community colleges that had "state" in its name. University officials were concerned that the misperceptions originating from its name were having a detrimental impact on the institution's identity.

In the late 1980's Memphis officials hired an independent consulting firm to assess the impact a name change would have, and the solution was the University of Memphis, which it argued would improve the overall image of the University. It's not immediately clear how much Memphis paid for that study, but I am clearly in the wrong business.

Analysis: The University believed it could improve its image by disassociating itself with a name the public perceived as "small time" while at the same time associating its name with universities it believed it had more in common with such as Louisville, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.

Due to timing constraints, Memphis was unable to generate grant and fundraising numbers for this story. Open source reports indicate significant increases in both grants and fundraising in the years since Memphis has changed the name. Considering the impact numerous other variables had at UNT and Troy and likewise with the next institution we will look at, it's probably a safe bet that there are circumstances beyond those involved with the name change.

However, there is once again a common thread. The desire to change the perception and improve the institutions stature among its stakeholders and constituents is again a fundamental factor in the decision to change the name. The fact that Memphis officials associated its name with junior colleges is certainly a damning perspective considering the concerns voiced by those who feel the exact same way about MTSU's name.

Truman State University (formerly Northeast Missouri State University)
To this point, the focus has been on looking at similar University's that have changed its name by dropping "state" from the institutions official designation or by becoming a "University of…". The three previous institutions also play Division I sports.

In 1996, Northeast Missouri State University officially changed its name to Truman State University. In this instance the new named reflected a desire to end the regional designation of the university rather than the impact on state.

Although Truman State's athletics teams compete in Division II, the similarities between it and MTSU as an academic institution are striking. Much like MTSU, Truman State also started as a regional teachers college.

As previously mentioned, studies conducted to assess the impact the word "state" has in an institutions name have argued maintaining it could potentially have negative impacts including financially damaging ones, so why would a University go through all the trouble to make such a drastic change only to maintain "State" in its name?

The answer lies in the reasoning and the objectives when the University decided to change its name in the first place. According to previously published comments by University officials the change was brought about by the growth of the University and additional mission the institution was taking on by becoming less regionally focused with a different statewide mission. Retaining "Northeast" was increasingly seen as inaccurately portraying the institutions status within the state of Missouri.

"When this issue of a name change first arose, I had some real reservations because Northeast had gained such a fine reputation," said former President Jack Magruder. "However, statements in House Bill 196 clearly changed the mission of the University from serving northeastern Missouri to serving the entire state."

It should also be noted that University officials were increasingly challenged to differentiate itself from a state that had several universities with similar names including Northwest Missouri State University, and Southwest Missouri State University (which also later dropped the directional reference to become Missouri State). As a matter of fact, the first time I contacted the university I mistakenly referred to their historical name as "Northwest" Missouri State only to be politely corrected by their public relations staff. It mostly sunk in for me at that point that this was a story worth doing.

It also illustrates a common challenge MTSU shares with these aforementioned institutions in differentiating itself between TSU and ETSU. According to information obtained directly from the Truman State website,

"The University's directional name projected an image of its former self-as a regional multipurpose institution –rather than reflecting its evolving role in higher education as one of the finest public liberal arts and sciences universities. The perceptions inherent with the regional name caused problems with student and faculty recruitment and with the University's efforts to garner grants and other funds from the private sector."

Following the name change, Truman State experienced staggering growth in endowments. In the last year of the institution being known as Northeast Missouri State, its Foundation was worth $6.2 million. It took only four years following the name change for the Foundation to double its assets. By 2007, the Foundation's assets totaled $27 million and has hovered just below $25 million since.

However, it's important to point out that additional factors other than the name change played a role in Truman's growth, but its also worth noting that many of these factors are also the reasoning behind the university's name change in the first place.

Despite this significant growth, Truman's Vice President for Development, Mark Gambaiana was quick to downplay the impact the name change had on fundraising.

"There's been little impact on fundraising," Gamiania said in an interview. "Perhaps the name change had an effect, but I can't draw a quantitative conclusion that it has."

Similar to the events at Troy, Gambaiana pointed to the lack of sophistication and maturity of fundraising efforts at the time of the name change and the subsequent efforts the university has taken since that time that have led to such significant increases in the Foundation's bottom line.

"Our (fundraising) campaign and maturity of our fundraising efforts have been the primary reasons for our increased growth," said Gambaiana.

Gamiania was willing to commit to the idea that the name change had a positive impact with graduates of the university stating that alumni felt like the value of the degree had gone up as a result of the name change.

Analysis: The evolution of Truman State from its early days as a normal school to its competition with similarly named state institutions is an uncanny reflection of what MTSU has endured in its first 100 years. It's difficult to see University officials, alumni, and students - not to mention the Tennessee Board of Regents - getting behind such a drastic shift for MTSU to drop its name completely in favor of one that is more suiting a private school, but should it ever consider this path the state of Tennessee has a number of historic figures in its past to reposition the University with a new name. In following Truman State's lead of naming itself after a prominent former President, Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk could be names to break the ice and start the discussion. But a key challenge prominent University boosters would present is "Middle" is a part of the history and tradition of the school. I'm sure the residents in northeast Missouri are partial to their part of the world, but its hard to see alumni there having as much at stake as MTSU does with "Middle" considering it is one of the three grand divisions of the state of Tennessee.

The Future of MTSU
Each of the aforementioned University's clearly did not enter into this decision making process lightly. There were carefully constructed analyses, studies and assessments on the impact the previous name had on the university and the benefits a new name could potentially have in repositioning the institution's brand for the future.

The journey to better understand these issues have somewhat reshaped my own perspective on this. Perhaps one could argue that if alumni have a better perception of their institution that alone would be enough to consider the name change a success. But when the very institutions like Truman State who made the change can't directly tie it to its own financial advancements we're left with the same debates we entered with.

However, what is evident is that to improve the perception, awareness, visibility, and overall stature of the University – which anecdotally appears to have an impact on fundraising and grants – an institution should conduct a full analysis of itself from top to bottom to include its name, its academic offerings, athletics, etc. Essentially, if MTSU wants to be one of the top University's in the state, the southeast or even the nation it's going to have to look at its entire package, and the name is but one of those variables. And the proof of that is provided in the aforementioned examples. At each of the institutions, the name change was but one of several actions that was enacted to improve the perception of those institutions.

If MTSU hasn't even had that as an in-house topic of discussion does that mean the current administration hasn't taken a long hard look at itself to see how it can position its brand for the future in an evolving 21st century educational environment not to mention what's taking place with conference realignment and expansion?

For MTSU, there is a clear model to follow. Publicly, the athletic department has previously stated that it wants to follow the model of Louisville and Boise State. Those aren't bad schools to emulate on the athletics side of the house. But a complete institution is excelling in both academics and athletics. The path set forth by North Texas gives the MTSU administration an institution to emulate academically whether it eventually changes the name by dropping "State" as North Texas did, if it takes a more aggressive approach by changing the entire name as Truman State, or if it does nothing in regard to its name. North Texas took steps to become a research/grant institution and changed its name to change the perception. The name is merely one of the actions they have taken that were steps along the way putting them in a position to become a Tier 1 national research institution. And the other three institutions have done the same in an effort to improve their stature.

Is that to say MTSU couldn't do the same with "State" in its name? There's no analytical justification based on what I've seen, but there are perceptions of leaders who have changed the name of their institutions that think it's in the best interest of their university for one reason or the other. For the most part, those reasons are based in perception and branding and it's an area that wouldn't hurt MTSU to take a look at. But for proof one way or the other about unambiguous, cause and effect, statistically viable benefits of a name change we're left attempting to prove the negative, which is either impossible or next to it.

The ultimate unanswered question at this time is whether MTSU will feel it's in its best interest to take the time and effort to study the issue and present a compelling and legitimate argument to the Tennessee Board of Regents. As stated there's been no official discussion about this issue, so it may be a moot point for the foreseeable future.

As a proponent for the change from MTSU to the "University of…" I'm no less convinced that it will have an impact than I was before. If anything I'm more convinced since the name change would likely be presented at a time that the university is also undergoing other enhancements, so an attempt to reshape and rebrand MTSU as an emerging institution of higher learning could be done in unison with a new name and a plan for the future that enhances the university's stature and improves its ability to generate grants and private funds.

Given the examples it's difficult to make an analytical judgment or a statistically compelling case on whether the perceptions about MTSU are driven by "Middle", "State" or both at the same time, and the university should study it carefully. In lieu of research or sound data, each person will have to make their own judgment, but there is one area most will agree. For MTSU to improve its perception and stature there's some work to do, and there are a lot of good examples out there from which it can draw.

Note: For purposes of this story, information was collected both from open-source material (primarily from school web sites) and also from first hand interviews. The focus on fundraising and grants looked only at the university's asset accumulations and not the athletics endowments. Overall university asset accumulation was viewed as a better indication of the institutions stature (particularly in the context of its name and branding efforts) than was athletics fundraising.

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