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.