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
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
"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
"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
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
"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):
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
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.
n=quantity of elements;
Continued next page . . .