Set in stone?

After years of trying, Southwest Missouri State might have the popular support needed to change its name to Missouri State University
Sunday, January 16, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:29 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Just past the circulation desk in the MU School of Law Library, a small plaque hangs on the door of Suite 120. One of many placards placed throughout the school in honor or in memory of groups and individuals, this sign bears the name of 1955 graduate Thomas Strong.

An attorney in Springfield, Strong has practiced law in Missouri for nearly 50 years. He fondly remembers his days at MU and gives the school a great deal of credit for his success. In recent years, Strong’s pride has become disappointment. The small symbol of honor has become, in his mind, one of regret.

“I wish it weren’t there,” Strong said of the room that bears his name. “I’m just not proud of my alma mater.”

Strong’s disappointment in his law school alma mater sharply contrasts the pride he feels for his undergraduate institution, Southwest Missouri State University. A former president of the SMSU board of governors, Strong is pleased with the growth and expansion the school has experienced since he graduated in 1952. The transformation from state college to university is so marked, said Strong, that SMSU has outgrown its name.

Eager to see the school respected as a statewide institution, the 73-year-old attorney has become an active advocate to have SMSU’s name changed to Missouri State University.

Strong’s story is a personal one, but the debate it illustrates is not. As SMSU’s March centennial approaches, the separate paths SMSU and the University of Missouri System followed into the 21st century have reached a crossroads.

The university in Springfield began as a regional school aimed at training teachers but has evolved into the second-largest university in Missouri. It boasts a statewide mission in public affairs and graduate programs and draws students from around the world.

SMSU officials, students and alumni say the school’s name, its fourth, harkens to its past as a regional, narrowly focused institution and has become obsolete. Many say dropping “Southwest” would reflect the growth and expansion the school has achieved during the past 100 years.

What some characterize as a sensible change others call a threat. Although the UM system has taken no official position on the proposed SMSU name change, opponents, based largely in Columbia, say the change would hurt the system. They argue it would siphon money from a limited pool of state resources and seize prestige from the UM system's Columbia flagship. Supporters deny any ill effects and champion the change as a positive step for the state.

MU’s position, or lack thereof, disappoints Strong.

“I think my alma mater’s attitude toward higher education is a very selfish one,” he said. “MU says, ‘We’re more interested in protecting our pride than the overall good of the state.’”

SMSU President John Keiser contributed to the debate’s renewal last month with a proposal calling on the UM system to support the name change and increase collaboration between the institutions. Many others have contributed to the debate but only the state legislature has the power to grant a name change.

The legislature, too, has heard the arguments many times. On Dec. 1, new bills were prefiled in the House and Senate, the latest in a series of proposals first raised in 1988. Republicans are behind the bills this time, but members of both parties say the issue is not strictly a partisan one. Instead they call it a regional struggle, with legislators from the Springfield area pitted against those from Columbia.

If the past is any indication, the issue is certain to be a passionate one again this session. As Strong and others in Springfield prepare for the debate, many question the motivations of those who oppose the name change. They suggest that selfishness, politics and money might be at the heart of the matter.

“What you would think, by the arguments some people make, is that the world will come to an end (if the name changes),” Strong said. “We should get past this and move on to more important issues.”

A selfish fear of competition?

Kelli Wolf, 21, is a junior at SMSU and student member of the board of governors. Although Wolf prefers to concentrate on the name change’s positive potential rather than negative reactions to it, she said opposition to the proposal has been difficult to understand.

“The one frustration on our part has been that MU will say, ‘We aren’t going to take a stance,’ but legislators will tell us that they are influential,” she said. “I wish MU would be upfront about its position.”

Wolf disagrees with those who suggest SMSU is attempting to become the state’s second flagship university. The name change is not born of a desire to beat MU, she said. Instead, it is about respecting distinctive institutions that could complement each other.

“We do completely different things than the University of Missouri System does,” Wolf said. “We are functioning as the other major university whether or not our name reflects that. It’s just a shame our name can’t represent what we are to the people of Missouri.”

Angela Farrar, 23, a senior majoring in political science, said the name-change controversy also frustrates her. Farrar interned in Jefferson City during last year’s legislative session and witnessed some of the debate there. She said she is irritated the controversy seems to focus on politics rather than the merits of SMSU.

Farrar said jealousy and a reluctance to see MU and SMSU compete might be behind the opposition. Competition is not necessarily a bad thing, she said.

“Students I talk to from Mizzou think it would be healthy competition,” she said. “MU is a prominent school. They have one up on us in many areas, so what would a name really do?”

SMSU President John Keiser, who plans to retire in June, referred to “jealousy and objections” on the part of those who do not support SMSU’s growth and change during his Jan. 6 “State of the University” address. Throughout the speech, Keiser emphasized that SMSU’s growth during the past decade, move to selective admissions and statewide mission make it worthy of the name Missouri State University.

He said decisions about SMSU’s name should be made based on merit, not politics.

“It is really silly to be fighting over the name,” Keiser said Monday. “I’m always amazed when we get into an emotional debate.”

The Bottom Line

Missouri being unable to afford supporting two flagship institutions is one of the most frequent arguments against the name change. But Paul Kincaid, SMSU associate vice president for university advancement, said the issue of financing for SMSU is separate from the name change.

“There is not automatic funding significance to the name change in terms of state funding,” Kincaid said. “No matter what our name is, we are going to push for more equitable funding. We are under-funded per student (when compared to Missouri’s other regional universities).”

According to information the Missouri Department of Higher Education provided, SMSU received $5,208 per full-time equivalent (FTE) student in 2004. Meanwhile, Central Missouri State University received $6,361 per FTE, Northwest Missouri State University received $5,599 and Southeast Missouri State University received $5,758.

The drive to increase financing is common at universities across the state, Kincaid said, and is not specific to SMSU or its desire for a new name.

Although there is no financing attached to the name-change proposal, some expenses would be associated with it. Kincaid’s office estimates that transitional costs for the change would be $200,000. The SMSU Foundation would cover the cost.

Like Wolf, Kincaid stressed that SMSU does not strive to compete with or compare itself to the UM System.

“This is not a competition with MU, it really is not. We could never out-MU MU,” he said. “We need a great institution in Columbia, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be great institutions around the state.”

Springfield Mayor Tom Carlson, another name-change supporter, has heard the arguments against the change, including the claim that MU once was known as Missouri State University. Carlson said financing is at the heart of the debate.

“There’s concern on the part of the people at MU that somehow this could adversely affect them economically,” he said. “Let’s not kid anybody. Money and resources are what people are concerned about.”

Carlson, who also serves as a member of the SMSU board of governors, said that rather than arguing about the allocation of limited state resources, supporters of both institutions should work together to lobby for more money for education.

“I think it is not a matter of fighting to get a bigger piece of the pie, as much as an effort to make the pie bigger for all people in Missouri,” he said.

Keiser has made that suggestion. One of five points he presented in his proposal to UM System President Elson Floyd in December called for SMSU and the UM System to lobby together for increased funding. On Monday, Keiser said he had not heard anything further from Floyd on the proposal, which called for the UM System’s support of the name change.

Rather than stretching a tight state budget, Carlson and Sandy Howard, public affairs manager for the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, said they expect the name change to be beneficial not only to Springfield, but also to the state.

“We live in a time of tight state revenues,” Carlson said. “All the data indicate that the more highly educated a state’s population, the more successful its residents will be.”

Howard said the Springfield region has seen tremendous growth in recent years, calling it “a catalyst for the state’s economy.” Springfield makes up 3 percent of the state’s workforce but accounted for 25 percent of the state’s job growth from March 2003 to March 2004, she said.

Since 1990, the population of Springfield’s metro service area (MSA), a region that includes Greene, Christian, Webster, Polk and Dallas counties, has grown at an annual rate of 2.2 percent. With a population of 385,000 people, it is the fasting-growing MSA region in the state, Howard said.

“We think that SMS has played a central part of that growth,” she said. “We see this name change as advancing that growth even further.”

Grassroots Support

Bill E. Hixon, president of the SMSU Alumni Association, sees little opposition to the name change in Springfield.

“I think it’s very well supported at the school itself and among the alumni,” he said. “In fact, that’s all I hear. I’m sure there are people who aren’t for it, but on this end and in this area, it’s certainly well received.”

Hixon, who graduated from SMSU in 1969, said the students and alumni with whom he speaks agree that changing the name to Missouri State University is warranted. The alumni association has passed resolutions supporting legislative action on the name change for the past two years, he said.

“You probably won’t find anyone who doesn’t support it,” said Robert Martin, 20, a sophomore political science major.

Martin and Chris Lorance, 22, a senior psychology major, discussed the issue while passing time between classes in SMSU’s Robert W. Plaster Student Union on Monday.

“When you talk to someone inside Missouri, they know SMS,” Martin said. “But anybody outside the state doesn’t. It would really help students (when applying for) graduate school or jobs if the first reaction weren’t, ‘It’s a regional school.’”

Across a lobby in the union’s multicultural resource center, junior Kiva McFadden, 20, said students support the name-change proposal. McFadden said many are skeptical about its chances.

“I think it’s important, but most students aren’t really into it because they don’t think it’s going to happen while they’re here,” she said.

Although McFadden expressed skepticism, others are optimistic 2005 will be the year of the name change. Republican Gov. Matt Blunt has expressed his support, and with his party in control of the House and Senate as well, some expect partisanship to push the bills through.

Keiser said he’s hopeful that the proposal will be passed in time to coincide with SMSU’s centennial anniversary March 17.

“If it is going to happen, there will be a feeling by that time,’’ Keiser said. “It would be a big deal for the people around here.”

Carlson said he too is optimistic.

“I’m very hopeful that it will finally go through this year,’’ he said. “It’s not an issue that’s going to go away.”

Kincaid said that because the name change is the right thing for Missouri, the question is not whether it will happen, but when. Despite the controversy, disappointment and debate, Kincaid said he expects a smooth transition if the name is finally changed.

“Two or three years after the name change is done, whenever that occurs, people will wonder why we spent so much time on this,” he said.

As for Strong, he would like the feud between his alma maters to end. Despite the optimism of others, Strong remains cautious:

“I’ll have to see it to believe it.”

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