Lawrie Miller






How to name a school

There has been much comment and expression of angst recently in internet fora over distance learning institutions changing names. Most feel that in most cases, the name changes have not advantaged the institution. This article seeks to explore and analyze the components comprising a "good" name. and a "bad" name, and to offer some rational rule of thumb for naming an institution with a view to enhancing its reputation. 


The shrewdest and most imaginative in the college name game are of course, degree mill operators, of which there are many in the United States. They understand that manipulation of subliminal associations is the key consideration when choosing a name. The essential attributes of a successful title in this context are its effectiveness at conferring legitimacy, gravitas, and stature upon the institution. These qualities in aggregate, comprise an institution's reputation.


Reputation, has a real money, dollars and cents value, to the degree mill operator, the legitimate accredited school, and to the graduates of both types of institutions. The right name can open doors that otherwise would remain closed, in employment, graduate admissions, and even in ones social life. Playing the college name game then, is no trivial pursuit.


Some may know the story that The University of the State of New York (USNY) is often confused with the State University of New York (SUNY), the City University of New York (CUNY), or even New York University (NYU) - I have documented examples of the last point. The legitimate, but virtually unknown USNY, derives credibility, stature, and apparent reputation, by virtue of the highly associative trigger words in its name. In order of effectiveness at eliciting the desired associations, they are: University; State; New York.


"University" is the most potent because it signals the target audience that this school is first in the class hierarchy of educational institutions. By the same token, "College" announces a subordinate class institution. Thus, to use anything but "University" in the title of a new and unknown institution diminishes the perceived stature of that institution. 


I should not have to point out that we are focusing exclusively on the title. Generalized, the school is mythical, there is only the name - a feature of many degree mills come to think of it.



"State" legitimizes the institution in a way that few other triggers can. It has a
high likelihood of evoking strong associations with the public sector segment of the university class. This association seems to generate a high degree of comfort in the minds of most people vis-à-vis the authenticity of the institution. However, "State" also carries the downside risk that it will trigger associations with a subordinate class within state university class, namely the well known "inferior urban state university class". So, "State" can be something of a double edged sword, but the upside of legitimization usually outweighs the downside risk of a potentially significant reduction in prestige (stature).



"New York" is an identifier that has no intrinsic utility, but it is synergistic with "University" and "State". In the case of USNY there are two distinct synergies. The primary and most obvious is in its role as identifier. "New York" in this unique context will trigger associations resulting in enhancement of all three desired attributes, i.e. legitimacy, gravitas, and stature, than would be the case with, say, an identifier called "Idaho". "The University of the State of New York" is sexier than "The University of the State of Idaho".


However, a different result would almost certainly be true if the other trigger words in the title were changed to say, "State", "Potato and herbal Science Research" and "University", yielding, "Idaho State University of Potato and herbal Science Research" v "New York State University of Potato and herbal Science Research".


Although both versions appear a bit silly (by design) the version containing the Idaho identifier looks more plausible (at least to U.S. residents) because of that state's well known association with the root vegetable. All three of, legitimacy, gravitas, and stature are enhanced to a greater degree when these new trigger words are associated with "Idaho", than when they are associated with "New York". "Idaho" validates "Potato and Herbal Science Research" and "Potato and Herbal Science Research" validates "Idaho". This symbiosis is not present in the case of "New York" and "Potato and Herbal Science  Research". Thus, I hope it has been successfully demonstrated that isolated identifiers have no intrinsic utility, they derive meaning and value entirely from the context in which they appear. 


"New York" is also synergistic in a second way. Other, better known institutions in

 New York State share all or some of the USNY triggers. Those that come to mind were detailed earlier, namely SUNY, CUNY, NYU, and there may be others. It can be seen that all of these institutions sharing common trigger words, also share a common or pooled legitimacy, gravitas, and stature, and that  this set of pooled characteristics is algebraically summed with each institutions unique reputation to yield a new set of reputations that are individual in total, yet do share this underlying common reputation. 


*Algebraically, since the unique or the pooled reputation could be of opposite sign, i.e. rep A + (-rep B). Institution A has a good rep, institution B has a bad rep. The sum is some value below  A's rep and some value above B's rep.


Since the actual (real) USNY generates little or no significant reputation, good or bad, its perceived reputation must be the common or pooled reputation discussed in the last paragraph. That is, the USNY reputation is solely determined by the trigger words that comprise its name and nothing else. It follows  then, that if we change all or part of the USNY name, we generate significant changes in the USNY reputation (for better or worse). 


More is better . . . and worse

What if the modifier or identifier contains several elements?  Here it confers increased legitimacy, but reduces gravitas and stature. It looks as if the more elements we add on a sliding scale, the more legitimacy increases and the more gravitas and status decrease. For example (somewhat tongue in cheek):



University of Disneyland


Southeastern Disneyland Metropolitan University



It can be argued that  the latter of the two examples above reads almost real and legitimate but is not as grand as the former.


This observation can be formalized as: 



The quantity of elements in a place name identifier is proportional to the title legitimacy and inversely proportional to the sum of the title gravitas and status.






In ~ L/(G+S)



Where  I=identifier; 
            n=quantity of elements; 





Continued next page . . .






Website © Lawrie Miller 2001-2004

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