Since the state’s legislative session began last month, hardly a day has passed when there hasn’t been a squabble — or a full-blown filibuster — about whether Southwest Missouri State University should be allowed to change its name to Missouri State University.
Those who support dropping “Southwest” from the name say it represents SMSU’s progress over the past 15 years, from a regional school in Springfield to one with statewide appeal. Those who oppose it say SMSU is trying to cash in on MU’s heritage and state money.
“We do have a selective admission policy, we do have a statewide mission and we do have an expanding graduate program,” said James Giglio, chairman of SMSU’s Faculty Senate. “In every way, I think we represent a state university.”
Vicki Rosser, a higher education history expert and assistant professor at MU, said regional institutions have always been troubled by their mission.
“They’re not a community college, they’re not a private institution, and they’re not a research institution,” Rosser said.
According to the Carnegie Foundation higher education classification, SMSU is a “master’s college and university” — an institution offering a wide range of baccalaureate programs with a commitment to graduate education.
MU, on the other hand, is a “doctoral and research extensive university” — offering doctoral level programs and investing in research. Although the Carnegie definitions are not intended as a ranking, Rosser said, many people look at them that way.
Drifting towards expansion
Instead of staying within their mission, regional institutions tend to “upward drift, “ Rosser said. Upward drift is a higher education term describing a tendency to introduce higher-level programs, causing an increase in the number of research and doctoral universities.
“Historically, the name change comes first,” Rosser said. “Then they want to be more and add more programs and degree offerings. And that costs the state more money.”
SMSU’s desire is not unique in the country. Many regional universities are challenging the state’s flagship institutions — some state it explicitly, some don’t. A Jan. 3 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the leading publication in the field, called these schools “the wannabes.” The article said the schools argue that their regions need more research universities, which act as economic engines for the state.
“The question for many lawmakers is whether they end up hurting their states by redirecting money away from the flagships, which are more highly ranked, produce better research and have more-successful faculty members and students,” the article reads.
In Missouri, state higher education funding has dropped 14 percent in the past two years, according to a national report from the Center for the Study of Educational Policy at Illinois State University. Although the picture is bleak all across the nation, Missouri is doing worse than the average.
Rosser’s assumption is that SMSU will follow the name change with program growth.
Gordon Christensen, chairman of MU’s Faculty Council and an opponent of the name change, said SMSU might go even further — setting its sights on a medical school or a division one football team.
But Giglio said SMSU is not in competition with MU. “We don’t want to have a medical school,” he said. “We don’t want division one football here.”
Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, who supports the change, said statewide competition for money already exists.
“Giving an institution a name change doesn’t increase or diminish their appetite for their program, faculty and students,” Nodler said. “It will not increase or lower their request for state funding. That competition exists right now.”
Why bother changing the name?
Rosser said it goes back to the upward drift and maybe a case of misleading advertising. The Carnegie classifications show a lot of schools in the nation that go by “state university,” such as MU, are doctoral-research institutions.
MSU would not be one, but the general public, Rosser said, might think so.
Giglio said the name would reflect SMSU’s competitive status in the country — the university already does research and employs publishing faculty.
It sounds complicated, but it mostly boils down to money, name-change opponents such as MU’s Christensen say. The state “piece of the pie” is getting smaller, and every institution is trying to get as much as it can. The name itself, Rosser added, doesn’t really matter. But when schools are trying to become more than they are, a new identity can’t hurt. Student representatives on the MU campus said that in 10 years people might not make the distinction between MU and MSU.
Rosser said there is some truth to that, especially for people from out of state. A student from Iowa, where Iowa State University and the University of Iowa are both doctoral and research institutions, might choose Missouri State University because it looks the same and sounds the same but is cheaper.
Prestige is also on the line, MU students and faculty said. The University of Missouri was called Missouri State University in its early days.
In a report written for his council, Christensen traces the history of the name. In 1901, MSU officially became the University of Missouri. Yearbooks from the early 1900s call it “Old MSU,” which soon led to “Old Mizzou.” “Old” was dropped, and “Mizzou” was born.
Rosser said she is bothered by the appearance that SMSU would try to take MU’s historical legacy. Giglio disputes the claim. He said the name is something that goes deep in MU’s past and was long ago set aside.
Robin Cook, representing the Associated Students of the University of Missouri said the issue represents both past and future.
“As part of the past they are attempting to take away our heritage. As part of the future, they are attempting to take away our ability to compete nationally,” Cook said.
Cook also said that by changing its name SMSU would climb out of the regional institutions pool, creating a third university tier in Missouri.
Rosser said that even if SMSU does not plan to compete with MU, it does want to leave its regional siblings behind. In the UM system, the MU alumni and student associations are the only organizations officially opposing the change, with MU’s Faculty Council planning to follow. Student and faculty said that system officials have their hands tied and don’t want to get on the bad side of the legislature by taking an official stand against the name change.
Why? Because the system has three issues on the legislators’ agenda that it would like passed: a $190.4 million bond proposal, approval of a land lease at MU and the merger with Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville.
The system shared its thoughts in a letter system President Elson Floyd sent to his counterpart at SMSU, John Keiser. In the letter, Floyd said that if the name change does occur, SMSU should not be allowed by the legislature to offer programs already in place at campuses in the system.
Floyd also said that legislators should not allow a newly renamed SMSU to receive more money than it did in the previous fiscal year.
— Missourian reporter Andrea Latta contributed to this report.