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What’s in a name? Plenty, say backers of renaming state colleges

Cite chance for more money, as bill goes to Senate

By Sydney Lupkin
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2010

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Ryan Chamberlaind, a Salem State College senior, said he always felt a little out of place at national college conferences like Model United Nations.

“We’re one of the only state colleges that goes to that event,’’ he said. “It was always like, ‘Oh. What’s Salem State College doing here?’’’

Soon, that could all change.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives voted 124 to 21 Thursday to allow the nine state colleges to rename themselves universities, making it the farthest such a bill has ever advanced in the Legislature, said Representative David M. Torrisi, chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, who voted for the measure.

Supporters of the bill, which now goes to the Senate, say the change would allow schools to earn more grants, draw more applicants, and make students more attractive to employers. Detractors say it would do little to improve the quality of education and could be costly if professors ask for university pay.

In general, Massachusetts public universities offer doctoral programs, while state colleges do not.

“I think it will help our state colleges attract and attain more students,’’ said Torrisi, a North Andover Democrat.

Senator Robert O’Leary, a history professor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said allowing the name changes would allow state colleges to keep up with other schools nationwide, many of which have done away with their state college systems in favor of state universities.

“There is an element of name inflation here,’’ he acknowledged. “Names are important. . . . Frankly, Massachusetts is just catching up to what’s happening in many other states already.’’

So far, 45 states have transformed their state college systems into state university systems, said Karen Cady, the spokeswoman for Salem State.

Chamberlaind, who works on Salem State’s student government, said he joined other students at the State House in April to lobby for the change. He said graduating from Salem State University would give his resumé more validity.

“It makes a big difference, especially for applying for jobs anywhere outside Massachusetts,’’ he said. “We will finally get that recognition.’’

Fitchburg State College president Robert Antonucci said the school had been taking subtle steps in recent years in anticipation of a name change. In fact, his sweatshirt only says “Fitchburg State,’’ leaving off the word college. The athletic uniforms only say “Fitchburg,’’ making the logo transition cheaper. “It’s a good move,’’ he said.

Opponents, however, say that the name change might take away what makes state colleges unique and drive up costs. State Representative Christopher J. Donelan, who went to Westfield State College, said he has no doubt that professors and presidents will ask for more money in a few years, leading to higher costs for students. This fall, the total cost to attend Westfield State will be $15,823. “I didn’t see any value in it for students,’’ said Donelan, who voted against the bill.

Christopher O’Donnell, president of the Massachusetts State College Association, stressed that nothing in the bill would change professors’ salaries, but added that state college professors in Massachusetts are paid 15 percent to 19 percent less than their peers in other states.

“I don’t think the intention of the university status ever was a money issue,’’ he said, adding that the colleges are not trying to compete with research institutions like those in the University of Massachusetts system.

State Representative Ellen Story said the bill is inevitable, but she disagrees with it because she thinks adorning the schools with the name university falsely suggests that the state is beefing up its public higher education system. “It doesn’t need name changes,’’ she said. “It needs money.’’

Story said Massachusetts does not cherish its public higher education system the way other states do. She said if she could give state schools more money and resources, she would.

Like Donelan, Story said she expects the inexpensive name change to be costly in the long run because college employees will want to be paid on the same salary scale as those at UMass. “I would, too,’’ she said. “But to say that this won’t cost the state anything is naïve . . .and changing logos is just the beginning.’’

In addition to Fitchburg and Salem state colleges and Mass. Maritime, the other public colleges are Bridgewater State, Framingham State, Westfield State, Worcester State, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

Sydney Lupkin can be reached at slupkin@globe.com.

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