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You're a U. now; State kicks `colleges' up a notch.


Was there something wrong with the term "college"?

Massachusetts, a longtime leader in education, has decided to rename six state colleges as state universities. Other states have done so, officials say, and apparently we must keep up with the Joneses.

The term "university" usually connotes a relatively large school offering a range of courses and programs, and awarding diplomas up to the doctoral level. Tireless, original research in labs and libraries brings support and recognition to faculty and the institution. To deal with their enormity and complexity - qualities not synonymous with superiority - universities usually sort themselves into "colleges" or "schools," where undergrads explore the liberal arts, or potential professionals are put through their paces in medicine, science, business and law.

In contrast, "college" suggests an institution with built-in community and focus, and a mostly unadulterated emphasis on teaching and learning.

In practice there is plenty of overlap, and "college" and "university" can be used almost interchangeably in this country.

More to the point, neither model gets automatic bragging rights. Either can offer a profoundly meaningful education, or a mediocre one. What matters is the quality of the staff, and the quality of the students. It's in defining what "quality" means, and striving to attain it, that goes to the heart of the puzzle, and the boundless satisfaction, of providing and receiving a truly good education.

In this state, we know that. But in making this name-only change, Massachusetts seems to have signed up for a dull marketing class and taken a seat in the back.

And so we'll erase decades of tradition at solid state colleges. On Oct. 26, while students worry about midterms, Worcester State, Fitchburg State, Bridgewater State, Framingham State, Salem State and Westfield State will have their "Pomp and Circumstance" moment - the pomp part, anyway - and take on the "university" title. Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts will hold onto their unexalted names but are also being folded into the Massachusetts State University System.

It should be noted that this change does not come without cost. Campus signage, along with untold towers of school mailings, catalogs, stationery and other materials, will need to be changed. The new universities will pay these costs, but what effect they, or the supposed upswing in status, have on tuition or salaries remains to be seen.

There's another cost, too. In the state's decision to rename - essentially, re-brand - these colleges by simply altering what they're called, we see a deflating example of bluster. All the back-patting in the world - about newfound prestige, casting a wider net, conferring a deserved honor on fine institutions, whatever - doesn't alter the fact that this is an empty move, a joining of the pack and a nod to surface over substance.

If we want nothing else of educated people, they should be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Massachusetts, of all places, has just tossed six sacks of chaff onto what we think were strong, proud colleges endeavoring to earn the considerable trust placed in them, and generally succeeding. They'll still do so as universities, of course. Like so much that now passes for progress in the real world, nothing really has changed.

Oh, well, colleges. Turn your tassels. You've graduated, we guess.
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Title Annotation:EDITORIAL
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 31, 2010
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