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What's in a name? MU's identity crisis

Sunday, September 2, 2007 | 8:57 p.m. CDT; updated 11:10 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

Every spring, eager high school seniors anxiously await the arrival of acceptance letters from the most prestigious public universities — higher education heavyweights like the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the University of Pennsylvania-Philadelphia and the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.

If those appellations have you scratching your head, some influential alumni of the University of Missouri-Columbia can relate.

For its first 124 years, the state’s largest campus, which is also the oldest public university west of the Mississippi River, was known simply as the University of Missouri.

That changed in 1963 with the creation of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the advent of the four-campus University of Missouri system. All of a sudden, the Columbia campus was on equal footing with what had been the University of Kansas City (now UMKC) and the Missouri School of Mines (now UM-Rolla).

Come January, the Rolla campus will be known as the Missouri University of Science and Technology. In Springfield, the school once known as Southwest Missouri State University is now simply Missouri State University.

Now it’s the Columbia campus’ turn. Encouraged by an alumni fundraising committee, Chancellor Brady Deaton is asking university curators to approve eliminating the “dash Columbia” to restore the flagship campus to its proper perch.

“All we’re asking for is the name we were originally granted,” he said.

The regional designation diminishes the university’s national standing, say Deaton and his supporters. They worry that the rise of regional factions, particularly among sometimes hostile Jefferson City lawmakers, is damaging the Columbia campus’ historical respect and importance among Missourians.

David Shorr, a Jefferson City lobbyist who lives in Columbia, calls it part of “a strategic effort to undermine the stature and position” of MU.

Fueling that effort, he said, are legislative term limits that deprive lawmakers of the institutional knowledge needed to appreciate the university’s contributions to the state’s economy, civic and intellectual lives.

“There is a distinct lack of knowledge and history (among legislators),” he said.

In the modern marketplace that is higher education, the regional designation hinders the university’s ability to sell its assets while also confusing potential students and donors, said Shorr and Deaton.

Chancellor John Carney of the University of Missouri-Rolla can appreciate that argument. The push for a new name to better reflect the school’s science and engineering emphasis emerged from his desire to boost the school’s “national and international recognition,” he said.

From a nomenclature standpoint, prospective students considering the Missouri University of Science and Technology won’t have to worry whether their choice measures up to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech or other peer schools, Carney said.

“From a marketing point of view, to have to spend five minutes trying to explain who you are ... is like trying to fight with one arm tied behind your back,” he said.

Curators could consider the request as soon as their October meeting in Columbia. Several curators said they are withholding an opinion until hearing Deaton’s presentation.

Gordon Lamb, the university system’s interim president, has also not reached a decision whether to support the request, a system spokesman said.

Deaton said he does not expect his colleagues in St. Louis, Kansas City and Rolla to oppose the measure.

Carney, while stopping short of an endorsement, said he could “see the motivation” behind the Columbia group’s efforts.

At the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Chancellor Tom George said the proposal has generated “a certain nervousness” among some faculty members and administrators.

But with the newest member of the University of Missouri family coming into its own, UMSL is far more secure about its own identity than worried about changes at it sister campus, he said.

“We’re a campus that has grown tremendously,” George said. “We feel very secure.”

Should the change take effect, it would be more symbolic than practical. The cost of removing “Columbia” from stationery, campus signs and other items would be nominal, according to Deaton. And some alumni have already offered to cover those costs, he said.

“We do not want any misperception about our mission,” Deaton said. “And (the name) really does belong to no one else.”

On at least one national stage, the proposed name change is a moot point.

From football and basketball to women’s soccer and fencing, athletes on the Columbia campus compete as the University of Missouri — just like their peers at Michigan, Penn and Virginia.


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