At least publicly, the University of Missouri system has stayed on the sidelines when it comes to changing names at state colleges and universities.
As Southwest Missouri State University tries once again to drop the “Southwest” from its name, UM system President Elson Floyd and the UM Board of Curators keep restating they have no official stance.
“There is no official position by the board or Dr. Floyd,” spokesman Joe Moore said. “When approached about this last year, Dr. Floyd said that, beyond the question of the name change, there needs to be discussion about the respective missions of our individual higher education institutions to clarify how we can best support the state of Missouri.”
Still, SMSU officials say some kind of a public statement by the Board of Curators or Floyd himself could help form the debate as it wends once again through the Missouri General Assembly.
“We have always hoped that the MU administration would state whether they support it or not officially,” SMSU spokesman Paul Kincaid said. “It is really a legislative issue, but if they don’t support it then a public statement of neutrality would be something at least.”
Mary James, president of the Board of Curators, said the board does not have a policy about whether to take a position on name changes for Missouri universities.
Last week, SMSU President John Keiser met privately with Floyd to propose a five-point initiative that could set the stage for SMSU to change its name after more than 15 years of trying unsuccessfully.
The initiative outlines how, if the UM system were to publicly support SMSU’s name change to Missouri State University, both SMSU and the UM system could begin increasing the number of collaborative graduate and professional programs among the campuses.
The UM system has four campuses, including the flagship campus in Columbia. SMSU, with its main campus in Springfield, has branches in Mountain Grove and West Plains.
Joining the fray, a spokesman for Gov.-elect Matt Blunt said Monday that Blunt would support a name change. Spokesman Spence Jackson said SMSU has earned the right to drop the regional aspect of its name.
Although the UM system’s silence on the issue has been frustrating for SMSU, it is not the first time the system has remained quiet about major name changes for Missouri universities.
In 1995, when then Northeast Missouri State University wanted to change its name to Truman State University, the UM system did not take any position on whether the university should be allowed to change. Kincaid said he sees parallels between SMSU’s fight to change its name and when Truman State changed its own name.
“There are similarities in that they were trying to get a name that would clearly identify what they do as a liberal arts institution,” Kincaid said. “Northeast changing to Truman State has not hurt anybody and has not changed anything.”
The renaming came 10 years after then-Gov. John Ashcroft, a Republican, signed legislation making Northeast Missouri State University the only public liberal arts and science college in the state. Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan signed the bill officially renaming NMSU as Truman State University.
Kincaid said the growth of the student body and the number of graduate programs available at SMSU warrant the name change. This year, he said, he thinks the state is ready to make that change.
“In the past 15 years people wanted to do this,” Kincaid said. “But the university was not ready for it and some people recognized that.”
In just the past 10 years, though, SMSU has doubled the number of students in graduate and professional programs as well as changed enrollment standards from an open enrollment to a more selective standard. The average ACT score for incoming freshman has also increased from 21 to 24.
“We have seen a real maturation in our school in just the past 10 or 12 years,” he said. “As we have grown, I think it is time for our name to reflect that.”
In the past 100 years as SMSU has grown, Kincaid said, it has had four names — each reflecting the main purpose and goal of the school. Founded in 1905 as the Fourth District Normal School, the institution was used to prepare teachers for the classroom. In 1919, the name was changed to reflect it regional purpose as Southwest Missouri State Teachers College. As the college expanded and developed programs, the Missouri legislature dropped the “Teachers” portion and created Southwest Missouri State College. It was not until 1972 that the legislature once again renamed the school Southwest Missouri State University.
“Each of the different names reflected where we were as an institution,” he said. “Today we are in a position to be called Missouri State University.”