State panel struggles with renaming merged colleges

Regents spend hours debating names for new combined schools

ATLANTA — Playwright William Shakespeare first posed the question, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.”

 

The University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents grappled with a version of that question during its May meeting. It wasn’t discussing flowers or their fragrance but instead what name to put on a pair of colleges created by the mergers of four institutions.

As the board discussed for half an hour whether to name it The North Georgia University or The University of North Georgia, the scene that came to mind for many observers wasn’t the highbrow drama of “Romeo and Juliet” but the farce of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.”

In one, Juliet argues that names aren’t important and that they only get in the way of harmony. In the other, first-century renegades grow confused over whether they’re the Judean People’s Front or the People’s Front of Judea – agreeing only that they hate the other group more than the occupying Romans.

The regents replayed the lines in debating whether the second school should be the Middle Georgia State College or the State College of Middle Georgia.

Members of the board who had almost never participated in a discussion on any other topic spoke up about which name to use. This is a board that not only sets policy for hundreds of thousands of students and faculty but also directs a budget larger than that of many states.

Often those policies are complex, based on arcane terminology. Usually, the staff makes a recommendation that the board accepts with little discussion.

Picking a name for a school is a task every layman is equipped to handle.

Plenty of laymen weighed in on the matter. Regent Larry Ellis, a retired four-star general, said he heard from more people on the North Georgia naming than any other issue in the three years he has served on the board.

In that time, the board has considered adding an engineering program at the University of Georgia, prohibiting illegal aliens from attending some schools and even the monumental decision to merge eight schools in the first place. That’s not to mention annual increases in tuition and fees.

A committee of faculty and community leaders from the schools being merged proposed a handful of names. The list didn’t exactly reflect the talents of their creative-writing department or marketing instructors.

For example, the merger of North Georgia College & State University with Gainesville State College resulted in University of North Georgia, The University of North Georgia, North Georgia University and The North Georgia University. The committee from Macon State College and Middle Georgia College were no more inventive.

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“This was not an easy decision to make,” said North Georgia President Bonita Jacobs.

In a field where icons go by Brown, Duke and Yale, it may be surprising that the proposals were polysyllabic, but such is always the outcome of committee consensus.

Their goal was to offend as few people as possible by retaining as much of the former names as would fit on a letterhead. Having North Georgia come first in the name is seen as a slight to the people of Gainesville, people who personally know the governor.

Parking North Georgia in the back of the name represents a fresh start, argued the governor’s friends.

“It’s a new institution. This is not a corporate takeover,” said Regents Chairman Ben Tarbutton.

“Yes, it’s a new institution, but you don’t throw out the one that’s been there the longest,” Ellis said, taking the opposite stance.

North Georgia College is the state’s second-oldest institution of higher learning and one of only six military schools in the nation. An early group of regents kept that name when it became a university, resulting in the odd appellation of North Georgia College & State University to soothe the same alumni concerns.

The committee that proposed the names also drafted a mission statement. In recognition that the merger results in an entity in which only a minority will have any association with the ROTC program at the once all-male institution, the submitted statement made only fleeting mention of the military.

Because alumni had brought the supposed oversight to the personal attention of several regents, that matter also came under discussion, Finally, Regent Ken Bernard offered an amendment wedging it into the opening phrase.

There are still two more names to select in this first round of consolidations. Soon, the board will be wrestling over the words for the mergers of Waycross College with South Georgia College and Augusta State University with Georgia Health Sciences University – the new name given the Medical College of Georgia less than two years ago.

The Augusta marriage is a friendly one, arranged by local leaders who believe one medium-size university will give the city more heft than two small ones. It’s a shotgun wedding in south Georgia, and the Waycross folks who fought the merger unsuccessfully are likely to push as hard for a name they believe their chamber of commerce can get a little mileage out of.

Wait until they have to pick mascots and school colors.

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