Globe Editorial

Six state colleges have earned the right to be universities

April 23, 2010

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THE PRESIDENTS of the state college system in Massachusetts argue convincingly that “university’’ status would put them in a stronger position to compete for students, faculty, and grants. As long as the new brand doesn’t come at the expense of taxpayers, affordable tuition, or the colleges’ public mission, the Legislature should accept the request.

There is no widely accepted definition of university in the United States or around the world. In Massachusetts, the term is usually reserved for institutions that grant doctoral degrees. But 45 other states are less exacting, routinely granting university status to public institutions that offer bachelor’s or master’s degrees in a broad range of subjects. Outside of the United States, university is the preferred term. And in some countries, “college’’ is synonymous with secondary schools.

Measured against their peers in other states, six state colleges in Massachusetts — Bridgewater, Fitchburg, Framingham, Salem, Westfield, and Worcester — already serve as de facto regional universities where the emphasis of the faculty is on teaching, not research. Library materials and laboratory facilities are also in line with other public universities. The presidents of the six state colleges believe deeply that changing their names to Bridgewater State University, Salem State University, and so on would reveal their true identity while providing the cachet needed to attract local students whose heads are being turned by the state universities in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and elsewhere. That should matter to local businesses and communities. Students in the state’s public colleges tend to stay put after graduation.

Richard Freeland, the state commissioner of higher education, embraces the change. The argument against the move boils down to “fear of competition’’ on the part of private colleges in the area, said Freeland, the former president of Northeastern University. The University of Massachusetts does not object, in part because the “University of . . .’’ configuration remains the gold standard signifying intensive focus on research. And no one is trying to force the change on the remaining three state colleges, including the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, which are satisfied with their current names.

The shift will be an all-around winner provided the state colleges don’t use the name change to alter their teaching mission, add costly programs, relieve faculty of current teaching loads, or drive up tuition costs. A bill to change the status, however, must still be amended to ensure that this will be a change in name only.

Down the road, the state universities might come back to the Legislature for permission to grant doctoral degrees. Such a request could be consistent with their mission if the degrees are limited to practical fields, such as social work or nursing. But there will be time to think about that after testing the marketability of the university name.

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