COLUMBIA — The University of Missouri-Kansas City is considering a name change that could help it emerge from the sizable shadow of its campus cousin down the road in Columbia.
The school has used its current name since joining the four-campus University of Missouri System nearly 50 years ago. But Chancellor Leo Morton, encouraged by some prominent donors and alumni who have sought the move for years, is suggesting the school look at dropping "Missouri" and return to the name used for more than three decades after it was founded in 1929: the University of Kansas City.
"It's not about going back in history, it's not about not liking the name we have," Morton said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "It's about finding the right name to develop our brand and better execute our mission."
A name change would have to be approved by the university system's Board of Curators. No formal proposal has been submitted, and Morton cautioned that he has no interest in leaving behind the affiliation with the flagship Missouri campus in Columbia as well as the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla.
"We derive significant benefits from being part of the system," he said. "I would never even consider that."
With 15,000 students and its own schools of law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and nursing, as well as a music and dance conservatory, the university is still mistaken for a "branch campus" of the flagship far too often, Morton said.
"In many people's minds, that's a lower position," he said. "The University of Kansas City says, 'This is a university that serves the region and the city.'"
That distinction is important, particularly to donors, the chancellor said. And it's also accurate because 75 percent of UMKC undergraduates come from the Kansas City metro area on both sides of the state line. An equivalent percentage of graduates remain in the area, Morton added.
Name changes in higher education are becoming increasingly common in Missouri and beyond as schools seek to carve out unique brands in a crowded and competitive marketplace.
In 2005, state colleges Harris-Stowe in St. Louis and Missouri Western in St. Joseph morphed into universities. Missouri Southern State University-Joplin dropped the city identifier from its name — just two years after making its own college-to-university shift. Southwest Missouri State University ditched the regional designation to henceforth be known as Missouri State.
Three years later, the school known as the University of Missouri-Rolla became Missouri S&T. And the flagship campus formally stripped "Columbia" from its name to simply become the University of Missouri — even though that usage had long been informally adopted.
Morton broached the name change last week with the school's Faculty Senate and plans to soon discuss it with alumni association leaders. Should support suggest a continued effort, UMKC will embark on more formal surveys of students and graduates and seek out market research to justify a name change before bringing a proposal to curators.
"This is not a fait accompli by any means," Morton said. "We have to do the research. If the surveys say it's not the thing to do, and we don't have the support, then it won't happen."
Morton said he has previously discussed the idea with curators and new UM System President Tim Wolfe, but more as a hypothetical. Asked if Wolfe supports a name change, university spokeswoman Jennifer Hollingshead said "it's very premature" because UMKC hasn't yet presented a formal proposal. Several curators also said they were withholding judgment until more details are known.
"I would be open to looking at it and see if it makes sense for the entire state of Missouri," said curator David Bradley of St. Joseph.