Elmhurst University? University of Elmhurst? The age old question about changing Elmhurst College’s name to university is being asked again with the Board of Trustees expected to vote on the issue either at their March or June trustee meeting.
“This is a question that has never gotten away; it’s come up with every EC president and then gone under the table, but this one has gotten momentum,” said Debra Meyer, education professor and head of the faculty college/university working group, which is in charge of researching the name change issue for the faculty.
For President Troy VanAken, now is the perfect time to ask and discuss this question.
“I think twenty years ago this was the topic of conversation, but it wasn't a consideration as much, and it wasn’t pressing then,” said VanAken in an interview with The Leader. “There have been a number of things that have been happening both externally and internally that are maybe getting to a place where it feels like it’s a more legitimate question than it could have.”
One of those things that have made the name change question more legitimate, according to VanAken, is the rating agencies like Carnegie Foundation and US News & World Report’s classification of EC already as a university.
“EC is ranked as a midwestern university. That in itself is different than it was in twenty years ago,” he said. “Our graduate programs have grown. We have over 60 undergraduate majors—we've just continued to evolve as an institution.”
Perceptions of the word “college”
VanAken also cited appeal to international students as another reason for adopting the university name.
“Typically, international students perceive ‘college’ as a secondary school (similar to community college) or high school,” he said in an email sent out to students on February 25 sharing his reasons for supporting the name change.
The word “college” not only connotes a two-year institution or a community college for international students, but even at times for domestic students from the United States as well—an opinion which was also widely reflected as a rationale for a university moniker in The Leader’s college name change survey, which was first sent out to students and alumni on November 28, 2018.
“It sounds more professional. I’m sick of people thinking I go to a community college!,” responded one student in the anonymous survey, which had 1,024 participants, as reason for changing EC’s name to university.
Another student said, “In my experience, many people who were not familiar with the college thought it was a community college or didn’t take it as seriously as other schools because it included the word ‘college’ instead of ‘university’.”
These perceptions are not unheard of for VanAken, and he wants to change that.
“Two-year schools—for example, Harper College, College of Dupage or Triton College— they have adopted, instead of being community colleges, they've taken over sort of that mindspace where people are thinking about what is a college,” he explained. “We have to work a little bit extra to try to educate people as to ‘no, here's what we are’.”
Campus survey responses
Despite VanAken’s reasons for a college name change, the campus has mixed responses to the idea.
In a deeply divided vote, 45 percent of Elmhurst College full-time faculty voted in support of changing EC’s name to a university while 42 percent did not support the change. These results, which were revealed at the February 8 faculty meeting, also showed 12 percent of faculty did not participate along with the 1 percent who abstained from the vote.
The Leader survey revealed majority of the current students who participated in the survey, which was overall 520 students, support changing the name to a university, with 169 students voting in favor of “University of Elmhurst” versus the 152 students who voted for “Elmhurst University.”
Unlike current students, alumni are against the proposed name change, with 346 alumni who voted against it out of the overall 504 alumni participants. 56 alumni, however, voted in favor of changing the name to “University of Elmhurst” while 102 alumni favored “Elmhurst University.”
Campus arguments against name change
Some of the most common sentiments by students and alumni who were against the name change included concerns about financial costs and loss of identity as gathered by the survey.
“Rebranding is expensive, and I feel the financial resources could be better used if allocated elsewhere,” said one current student against the name change in the survey.
An alum said, “University's are for schools that have different schools within the school i.e. Quinlan School of Business-Loyola University. Unless the college plans on creating the smaller schools, then stick with Elmhurst College. Also, if you are going to be Elmhurst University, you'll need more parking. Build a parking garage or something.”
Another student also added, “Elmhurst is a small liberal arts college with a tight knit community and the current name reflects that. Elmhurst University sounds like a for-profit online college and University of Elmhurst evokes a grandiose that I personally was trying to avoid by going to a small college.”
For Robert Butler, one of the strongest faculty voices against the name change and a member of the faculty college/university working group, keeping the name “Elmhurst College” is a pragmatic one.
“The Chicago area right now has four colleges: Wheaton College, Lake Forest College, North Central College and us. In the Chicago area, there must be three dozen small universities like Aurora, Dominican, Roosevelt, etc,” explained the history department chair. “If we want to stand out and be distinctive, if we want to be unique—I think it's easier being unique being one of four than being one of 35.”
Many students, as revealed in The Leader survey, have concerns about the cost of the potential name change, such as rebranding, when money could go to solve current issues on campus, such as parking and facilities concerns.
Butler shares those concerns.
“I think we are in some ways we are very much like a university, but in that case we are going to spend half a million dollars changing all the letterheads of college to university, making no other real other changes,” he said. “It seems like a dead loss in terms of expenditure.”
According to the faculty college/university working group report, some faculty members believe a conversation about structural changes to the institution should happen first before a name change.
Butler agreed. “I think it makes more sense to talk about the structure of the college to see if that could be refined to reflect better of what we do. Because I agree; the college has changed over the past few years,” he said. “I would rather see us do that first and see if that solves some of the problems we've seen.”
“Whether or not there is any name change, some faculty and administrators believe it is important to have a conversation about our current organizational structure and how that might be improved. For example, all academic department chairs and most program directors currently report directly to the VPAA/Dean,” explained faculty chair Constance Mixon as a reason for this discussion. “This may not be the most efficient way of organizing ourselves. Our current structure has been in place for decades, even as the college has grown and added new programs.”
The faculty college/university working group has already started discussing models for restructure, according to the February 28 faculty meeting minutes.
Administration, however, is only focusing on the conversation on a name change right now, not structural changes of the institution.
VanAken said the reason is because a conversation about structural changes right now would be complex, and it is something that would take some time, versus a conversation about a name change.
“First of all, we could be named Elmhurst University, and you can operate just like we are,” he also added.
A conversation about structural changes would also be controversial for some such as whether each department would have their own core curriculum, according to VanAken.
“It would be very challenging for some faculty to think about the nursing department for example and their students having different core requirements than somebody who might be in another major,” explained VanAken. “And also it’s a threat to some departments because the core curriculum requires students to take certain courses, so that makes some departments more relevant on campus than others.”
“I think those are conversations that need to be had, but they don’t need to be had with people feeling like there's too much pressure,” he added.
Regardless of what happens with the college name change decision, chair of nursing department and member of faculty college/university working group Diane Salvador wants students to know they will always be supported at the institution.
“This isn't going to affect you as a student because every faculty is committed to you,” said Salvador.
“Whether we become a university or not, it’s not going to affect how we teach you or change the education you get here or why you came here.”