College plan to rebrand as “university” fails to serve goals of progress

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COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

I’ll start this article with a series of quirky facts: I’m one-quarter Canadian. I have an irrational fear of horses. One time I met former Second Lady Jill Biden while drenched in sewer waste. Lastly — and most unexcitingly — I am currently a student at the College of William and Mary.

That last tidbit probably doesn’t come as a shock, but you’d be surprised to learn that certain individuals in Williamsburg would be quite upset to see me designate our school as a “college” rather than as a “university.” In its 326 year history, the College has been privy to extensive destruction and expansive development. Our dorky, swampy home is a fundamental component of Virginia’s history, and in its three centuries of evolution, the College has gone by a myriad of different names. More than three centuries removed from its initial founding as the “College of William and Mary in Virginia,” this institution is now regularly referenced by brief monikers including “W&M” and “the College.”

Upon arriving in Williamsburg two years ago, I never thought that a school’s name would matter for anything beyond being plastered on tacky T-shirts. I was clearly mistaken. Any student who was on campus last year probably remembers former College President Taylor Reveley’s bizarre tirade about the College’s naming traditions in March 2018. In a mass email sent to staff members, faculty and students, Reveley argued that the College should be known as “William & Mary” in official communication, and insinuated that the College may be better referred to as a “university” to reflect our community more holistically.

The College’s current brand guidelines echo this sentiment, stipulating that students, staff members and faculty should use “William & Mary” in speaking about the school on first reference. Then, individuals referencing the College — note that I’m calling it “the College,” not “William & Mary,” because I’m prioritizing conforming to The Flat Hat’s century-old style guide over blindly following an arbitrary brand campaign — are supposed to follow up by calling the College a “university” on second reference. Additionally, beyond illustrating which monikers are acceptable, these branding guidelines condemn certain names that apparently should never be used to describe the College. These unspeakable terrors include “WM,” “College of William and Mary” and “College of William & Mary.”

While I’ve never heard of anyone in their right mind referencing this institution as “WM,” it’s awfully silly that so much time and effort have been devoted towards shedding our reputation as a “college” and shifting towards being known as a “university.” The College’s branding guidelines, coupled with the administration’s insistence on designating our institution as a “university” as we enter a series of bold fundraising initiatives, project an image of deep insecurity.

I love the College with every fiber of my being and I cherish every day I have here, so the notion that I need to be told how to reference my own school is vaguely insulting. I recognize that an overwhelming majority of universities have formal branding guidelines, and they’re certainly helpful in standardizing and harmonizing communication. But students should in no way feel compelled to alter their speech patterns to appease administrative officials who grow concerned that calling the College a “college” is somehow a turnoff to prospective students.  The College has technically been a university since 1779 when the Marshall-Wythe School of Law was first created. Do we really need to waste effort convincing prospective students that we’re a university when we obviously attend one? We have several graduate schools here, ranging from our law school to the Raymond A. Mason School of Business. Our status as a university materialized just three years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence; I don’t feel particularly compelled to start changing how I reference the College when we’ve been making things work just fine since then.

At the end of the day, an institution’s name shouldn’t matter much — what clearly matters more in ensuring a positive campus environment is the quality of student life. The best way for student life to thrive is for students to feel empowered to talk about the qualities that make them unique, whether it be their Canadian heritage or their horrific encounters with influential politicians; we sure shouldn’t have to waste air calling ourselves anything different than what makes sense to us.

Email Ethan Brown at  ewbrown@email.wm.edu.