Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Higher Education Rebranding Interview

Earlier today, I was interviewed for a publication regarding Long Island University's rebranding initiative. The interview is as follows.

Can you share some insight on university/college rebranding history?

Actually schools in the United States have been rebranding throughout their histories. This is not a new trend as you will find that many institutions have rebranded several times. Often, this occurred with merger with other institutions; at other times, it changed along with the change of a school's mission.

Most “State Universities” were formerly “State Colleges.” Before that, they were known as “Teachers' Colleges,” and prior to that, they were known as “Normal Institutes.” It only appears that it is on the rise (and certain aspects are - such as the college to university name change), but you will be hard pressed to find many schools in the US that have not changed names at least once in their history.

Can you share some insight on the rebranding process?

That really varies from institution to institution. Usually it is based on the goals of a key individual - such as a president looking to divorce the school from its previous role or mission. Sometimes it is a system chancellor, such as what happened in Georgia in 1996, when most of the state institutions were rebranded to fit into one of five categories.

Schools, who were of a similar nature, were provided name designations that matched their mission. Only the Tier One and Two schools did not change. Tier Three, schools with graduate education but no doctorates, were named "state universities." Tier Four, the four year schools without graduate education, became "state colleges" and Tier Five, the two year schools, were named simply as "college." Some schools did well with the change and others are still bitter about it 15 years later as it was forced upon them by the chancellor.

What are some of the main reasons/goals why universities/college rebrand themselves?

It would be an alignment to its mission and the institution's overall marketability. Colleges will often become universities to match their current mission; however, sometimes the addition of "university" is also a marketing ploy as "university" provides a level of esteem that is not present with "college."

Schools with a large international base of students will move away from the "college" identification. This is because "college" is used for prep schools and not for institutions of higher learning in most of the world.

Sometimes it is because of other negative factors concerning the current name. The College of New Jersey (which was Trenton State College) felt that they needed a change because Trenton, NJ (as a city) had a bad reputation regarding crime and there were two other institutions in the region with similar names (Trenton State Prison and Trenton State Mental Hospital) that had negative connotations.

Are universities/college more successful after they rebrand themselves? Why or why not?

Typically, from my research, they have not been, as it is not a magic bullet for success. I can be, if the school puts resources in promoting and marketing itself and demonstrates that the name and mission are aligned. Most schools change names hoping for a greater student base and they actually have a corresponding drop in enrollment. Calling a dog a cat doesn't simply make the dog a cat.

Rebranding seems expensive, how have colleges/universities you've researched funded their rebranding initiative?

Most have not spent great deals of money on their name change. State based institutions who desired to change were usually not provided funding for the rebranding process. So signs and stationary were the primary outlay of finances. In most cases, old stationary was used (with stickers stating the new name) until it was exhausted.

There are many free avenues of promotion that institutions' marketing departments have not taken advantage of which would have helped in the promotion of the name. I would say the majority of the institutions I have encountered spent less than $1000 on the name change.

How does rebranding help the school? Can it potentially hurt the school?

It can do both. If it allows the school to be able to market itself better outside its region or become more selective and charge more for tuition in the process - it can be a boost to the school's reputation and revenue stream. In this case, it is not an overnight change - but a concentrated effort to better an institution prior to a name change - usually years before the rebranding occurs. These are the most successful schools.

Truman State University, formerly Northeast Missouri State University, spent 20 years retooling their institution before changing their name. It is one of the more successful state college rebradings to date - but it was associated with eliminating unsuccessful programs, becoming more selective, and building their overall reputation. The name change, which was needed, was secondary.

It can hurt as well when certain stakeholders are alienated. Under the initiative of a new president at California State University of Pennsylvania who was seeking funding from the Eberly Foundation, he decided to proceed with a plan to change the name to Eberly State University. The community revolted as they felt that this rebrand was based solely on money - the motivation was transparent. The Eberly family told the school not to use their name as they had received so much bad press over it. It probably hurt the school in receiving future Eberly dollars in the long run.

Three years later, Penn State Fayette changed its name to Penn State Fayette: The Eberly Campus. This was viewed positively in the community, as Penn State Fayette's presence in the region was based upon a large initial gift by the Eberly family in the 1960s; that gift provided the impetus for the campus to be built in the first place. The Eberly name made sense for this institution, but not for California State University.

Case-Western Reserve (formed from the merger of Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University in the 1960s) decided to rebrand (for marketing purposes) to simply Case. It alienated the Western Reserve alumni who felt there was "too much Case in their face." It was disastrous to say the least. Case returned to a CWRU designation and the president was fired in the process.

How does rebranding affect current and future students?

I think most students are oblivious to name change initiatives. There is less brand loyalty these days, and in the lifetime of the traditional student, many things have been rebranded. I don't think most students worry about it. You are more likely to offend alumni than current students who are focused on getting their degree and getting a job.

Brand loyalty is more consistent with an older population. In that respect, students are much more practical about such things. The down side is that when these students are alums, they probably will not be financial supporters of the institution because they feel that they have already provided support via their tuition. This is why powerful alumni can prevent a name change as they speak with their wallets and their purses.

Why do Universities/colleges change their name, can't they re-brand themselves and keep their name?

Why do people have makeovers? It is to become more attractive to potential suitors. Yes, there can be a rebranding of slogans or shortened forms of the name. This can be done by associating quality with the name. In the 1970s, there was a push for the Smuckers' jelly company to change its name as it was positioning itself to go nationwide with a marketing effort. The Smuckers' family bucked the name change. The touted their quality and came up with a slogan, "With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good." They stood by their name and focused on their quality. It worked for them and a name change was not necessary.

Overall, is rebranding beneficial for the university/college?

It can be, but it is not isolated to the name - it is what you do with the name. It has to be perceived as genuine. It has to make sense. It has to be supported by stakeholders. If not, it will probably fail.

Dr. James M. Owston is the author of the two-time award winning dissertation on institutional rebrandings: Survival of the Fittest? The Rebranding of West Virginia Higher Education.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Johns Hopkins University Drops "S" in Deference to John Hopkins

I know I've been lax in posts to this blog, but I had to post this for today. In an elaborate April Fool's joke, Johns Hopkins University dropped the "s" in Johns Hopkins to be John Hopkins University. A frequent misidentification of the Baltimore university that was founded in 1876 three years after the death of philanthropist Johns Hopkins bequeathed $7 million dollars to establish the university that bears his name. His unusual first name Johns was his great-grandmother's middle name and he was named after her son, his grandfather, the first Johns Hopkins.

The university had been planning this prank for nearly a year and you can read about it in the Washington Post.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Return to Blogging and Recent Developments

My life has been increasingly busy during the past 18 months and this has prevented me from being active with this blog. This first post in a long time will end my self-imposed silence and return to chronicling institutional rebrandings.

Some of the developments in the past 2 years include my selection as the winner of the 2008 Leo and Margaret Goodman-Malamuth winner for the Outstanding Dissertation for Research in Higher Education Administration. This was quite the honor bestowed by the American Association of University Administrators and I received my award in June 2008 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In 2009, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education awarded my dissertation the international Alice L. Beeman Outstanding Research Award for a Dissertation in Communications and Marketing for Educational Advancement. I received this honor during July of this year in Washington, DC.

In the wake of the second award, I received quite a bit of press including the Associated Press picking up the story and a feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The dissertation and stories regarding the awards can be found at

Most recently U.S. News and World Report featured a story where they interviewed me regarding institutional rebrandings (see Colleges Play the Name Game).

I want to comment on this article as well as one of the comments contributed by a reader.

Mountain State University

In the section discussing Mountain State University (my employer) and its name choice, further explanation is needed as the entire story was not told. It appears from the article (which I much appreciated my inclusion) that the main reason the Mountain State University name was chosen was because of the confusion "State" in our name might cause to consumers. While I did discuss this in the initial interview, I followed up in response to Ms. Clark's request for clarification. She stated:
"When the College of West Virginia changed its name to Mountain State University in 2001, the college president told you, as you were doing your dissertation research, that he was counting on some confusion by prospective students over whether the institution was a state or private university."

My response clarified this statement as well as put it in perspective. I replied with the following:
Well, that was a tertiary reason for the name selection and not a primary one.  I'll explain that in a minute.  Dr. Charles H. Polk, our president, was leading us into our second metamorphosis since coming to the school in 1990.  It was a junior college when he arrived in 1990 and by 1991, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools approved Beckley College to offer four-year degrees.  With this approval, we began to position ourselves as an institution beyond our hometown and county.  Dr. Polk selected the name "The College of West Virginia" to indicate that we were anticipating branching out to other areas in the state.  This eventually happened. 

By 1998, we also sought permission to offer graduate programs.  By 2001, CWV had been approved to offer seven Master's degrees.  With this change, Dr. Polk felt that our name needed to reflect our new status as a university - hence, the name Mountain State University was selected.   In 2009, we received permission to offer an additional Master's degree and a doctorate.  In less than 20 years, we moved from a junior college to a doctoral granting institution.  I don't have the figures in front of me for 2009, but by comparison - we conferred 369 degrees and certificates in 2002 and in 2008, we conferred 1,163 degrees and certificates.  While the name contributed indirectly to these figures, being market driven has allowed us to be above the curve on enrollment than most other rebranded institutions.

A secondary reason for the MSU name change was that we needed a name that was more attractive. As we were moving towards having campuses and sites in other states, we needed a name that wasn't going to be geographically limiting.  Therefore, Mountain State University (with West Virginia being the Mountain State), while not alienating our hometown constituents and alumni, served to play better outside of West Virginia.  We currently have sites in Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, DC, and a comprehensive campus in Martinsburg, WV.   Part of the reason for the shift in names would allow us to be more attractive to non-West Virginians.  In my interview with Dr. Polk, he stated: "It was something that could play anywhere . . . . It’s more marketable and less bound to geography. You could use Mountain State and think Colorado, Vermont, West Virginia, or any number of places."

As far as the addition of "State" in our name, here is his exact quote: "Frankly, when I made that decision back in 2001, it was a deliberate decision. I think there are two ways of looking at brands. One that it needs to create in the minds in someone the absence of questions and with it you find the money and promote it and to make it well known. The other is creating, to some extent, a brand with confusion. Then when you are out there trying to spread that brand around, I think in the minds of many people they begin to think in terms of flagship institutions. They think about the University of Texas and North Carolina State and all of those kinds of schools. It was a judgment that I made. It was better to have, not a deceptive element, but an indication that this institution was like others.

Owston, J.M. (2007). Survival of the fittest? The rebranding of West Virginia higher education. (Doctoral dissertation, Marshall University). Publication No. AAT 3310223, pp. 210-215.

Owston, J.M. (2009, September 16). Email to Kim Clark, RE: factchecking. Personal communication.

There were side benefits for the inclusion of "State" in Mountain State University name; however, the "State" is included not as a reference to state controlled or operated - but is included because West Virginia's nickname is the "Mountain State."  So there is a difference when you look at the name in its entirety and where the emphasis should be placed.  Our emphasis would have been Mountain State University with the emphasis on our status.  Certainly, Mountain State University - with an emphasis on location (the Mountain State) also makes much more sense than the article's implied Mountain State University - emphasizing the possible confusion with public institutions.

University Definition

Secondly, Howard J. Bachman's comment:
"For a 'college' to change it's name to a 'university' can be more about deceit than marketing. The best definition of a 'university' was set forth from the National Center for Education Statistics which indicated that a university must grant not only bachelor's and master's degrees but must have at least two professional schools (i.e. Law, Engineering, Medicine, Pharmacy etc.) At least by this definition, the number of universities in the US probably fall short of 200."

I appreciated Mr. Bachman's analysis and information.  I was able to secure the NCES definition:
University  An institution of higher education consisting of a liberal arts college, a diverse graduate program, and usually two or more professional schools or faculties and empowered to confer degrees in various fields of study. For purposes of maintaining trend data in this publication, the selection of university institutions has not been revised since 1982.

Bachman, H.J. (2009, September 21). Comment to "Colleges play the name game." U.S. News & World Report [online edition]. Available at

National Center for Education Statistics (2008). Digest of education statistics: 2008 — Appendix B: Definitions.  Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Available from

Unfortunately, I did not find the NCES definition when I was writing my dissertation in 2006 and 2007 and it would have contributed greatly to my research.  The 1982 reference indicates that this has been in place for some time; however, I had accessed the NCES definitions in regard to how the NCES defined degree programs and did not see this among the definitions and it may not have been online until 2008.  While it may have been an oversight on my part, I had searched in earnest for the definition of university from a variety of sources and never discovered this particular one, which is very limiting in scope.  I thank Mr. Bachman for alerting us to this particular definition and hopefully it will aid others who research this subject.

It is good to be back.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

MSU-Bottineau Considering a Name Change

South Dakota's Minot State University-Bottineau is considering a rebrand makeover; however, a change in status and relationship is not forthcoming. Even if the MSU name is dropped, the school will still remain affiliated with Minot State University. One of the reasons for the proposed change is that there are too many schools with the abbreviation MSU. Another, as Joseph Marks reported in the Grand Forks Herald is that a "nondescript name" may be successful in drawing students. One suggestion was to retrobrand to its former name of the "School of Forestry." Other names considered included the following: Northern Lights University, Peace Garden State University-Bottineau, Four Seasons State College, and Bottineau State College.

Any change in names would need the approval of the institution's president, the North Dakota Board of Education, and the North Dakota Legislature. The soonest total approval could occur is 2009.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Utah Valley State's move to university status is progressing

As announced in this blog on January 6, Utah Valley State College will become Utah Valley University on July 1, 2008. Approved by the institutional trustees but pending approval of the state board of regents, several schools within Utah Valley State will also rebrand.

The School of Arts and Humanities will be split into two schools: the School of Arts and the College of Humanities. The School of Health Science will become the College of Health Science. The School of Technology and Computing will upgrade to college status. The School of General Academics will be repositioned as the University College.

The School of Education, the School of Continuing Education, and the Woodbury School of Business will not experience any name changes.

Typically the rebranding of schools within a university are listed in the HEP Higher Educational Directories (see Spencer, 2005) among institutional name changes. With the exception of the public outcry against the Welmark brand being applied to the University of Iowa's College of Public Health as blatant commercialism, these changes normally occur without any stakeholder furor or outcry.

See UVSC renaming academic schools to fit university model

For a historical perspective of a change that did not occur, see the following stories about the University of Iowa's failed plan to add sponsorship to a college within a university. Dateline 2007.

A College By Any Other Name
Philanthropy with Strings: Wellmark Pulls $15 Million Gift to UI
Wellmark Withdraws Offer of $15 Million Donation to University of Iowa

I thought the University of Iowa's story from 2007 was fascinating as it has some societal implications; however, I omitted it from my dissertation as it really didn't fit any of my main topics of consideration. Therefore, for a historical perspective, I have included it here.

Spencer, D. C. (2005). College and university name change: A study of perceived strategy
and goal achievement.
(Doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia). UMI No. 3161630.
Spencer referred to these rebrandings as occurring in "sub-schools."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Malone College is becoming Malone University

On February 9, 2008, the Malone College board of trustees voted unanimously to rebrand as Malone University. According to an institutional press release, "The Board reaffirmed that mission and emphasized the potential for enhanced educational opportunities within the liberal arts context for the growing number of undergraduate students already studying in 90 different academic programs. The name change is also consistent with Malone’s desire to explore further graduate and continuing studies opportunities in Northeast Ohio and beyond."

Malone began offering graduate programs in 1990 and adopted a university structure in 1999. The official date of the name change has not yet been determined.

Press Release

Thursday, February 14, 2008

New Hampshire Community and Technical Colleges all rebrand

Unlike the Lone Star Community College system which unified under a single brand, the New Hampshire Community and Technical Colleges divested themselves of the single brand in favor of individual brand identities. Signed into law in 2007, the new identities were announced on January 30, 2008. The name changes include the following:
  • New Hampshire Community and Technical College-Berlin to White Mountains Community College
  • New Hampshire Community and Technical College-Claremont to River Valley Community College
  • New Hampshire Community and Technical College-Laconia to Lakes Region Community College
  • New Hampshire Community and Technical College-Manchester to Manchester Community College
  • New Hampshire Community and Technical College-Nashua to Nashua Community College
  • New Hampshire Community and Technical College-Stratham/Portsmouth to Great Bay Community College
  • New Hampshire Technical Institute to New Hampshire Technical Institute – Concord’s Community College
The schools are governed under the auspices of the Community College System of New Hampshire.

Name changes approved for community colleges
NHCTC to change name: Will become Great Bay Community College
NHTI name change reflects college's role