More in Academic Pretension

How’s your college doing? A little short on funds? Need some more applications? How about considering a magical transformation into a university. Depending on the state where the college is located this transition can be pretty easy.

Aside from changing all of those signs on campus and around town, it’s pretty much just a matter of a few forms. It’s not really clear why the transition from college to university matters much but it does suggest a move toward greater seriousness and more research, even if this has change has no basis in reality.

According to an article by Nolan Rosenkrans in the Toledo Blade:

Lourdes College will hold its convocation Friday at 3 p.m. at the Franciscan Center Theatre, and will officially change its name to Lourdes University. After a welcoming ceremony for students, Lourdes will retire its ceremonial mace for a new one that says “university.”

There are no specific criteria in Ohio for a college to become a university, but Lourdes president, Robert C. Helmer, said the change is not a pure recruitment ploy. The word university traditionally refers to a higher education institution that has both undergraduate and graduate programs. In recent years, Lourdes has added graduate programs, intercollegiate athletics, and on-campus housing. New master’s programs start this year, and faculty increased their research efforts.

“It has to be more than just marketing,” Mr. Helmer said about the shift from college to university. “That would feel inauthentic.”

Let’s call ourselves a university. Then people will respect us. This is a tactic administrators at other schools across the country have tried recently. Despite the presence of all of this apparent new graduate scholarship, however, it doesn’t appear anyone has done a critical study of whether changing into a “university” improves recruitment or fund raising.

No, Helmer, I’m afraid this still feels inauthentic. This is especially so since on-campus housing and intercollegiate athletics having nothing to do with being a university. Kenyon and Oberlin, other Ohio colleges, have had both of these things for years and feel perfectly happy continuing to be colleges.

Traditionally, in Europe at least, a university is an umbrella group for several different colleges and includes a whole community of scholars devoted to different disciplines. There is, however, no official legal definition of a university (or a college) in the United States. Many administrators feel that they can just sort of make these distinctions up themselves. A couple of graduate programs in education or business administration might be are good enough for university status, even if many institutions of higher learning maintain full law and medical schools and remain mere colleges.

Helmer said university status would bring a “whole new energy to the campus.” What was wrong with the old energy?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer