Higher E(d)volution: Six Mass State Colleges Re-Branded as Universities

By John O. Harney

It’s an evolutionary fact of life in higher education. Good courses become programs. Worthy programs become schools. Schools become colleges, and colleges in some cases, become universities.

Yesterday, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation that re-branded six state colleges—at Bridgewater, Fitchburg, Framingham, Salem, Worcester and Westfield—as state universities, effective Oct. 26. Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts will not change names, but will be part of the new state university system.

Some friends recently reckoned that after all these years writing about higher education, I would be able to clarify what distinguishes a college from a university. The best I could do was point them to the piece that Ken Lemanski wrote for the Fall 2007 issue of NEJHE.

Ken was writing about state colleges, which have their own set of regulations to deal with and their own reasons to change status. My friends were asking more broadly about why a wave of New England private institutions—Bentley, Bryant and Lesley, for examples—had all gone from college to university.

The answer to that is—you guessed it—marketing. Campus officials reason they’ll get more students and more research dollars when they’re known as universities, and their graduates will land better jobs. (Which makes you wonder why they don’t go the whole nine yards and insert the phrase Harvard University into their new names.)

Check out the ceremony announcing the new Massachusetts names on Youtube.


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