by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

A friend of mine runs his small IT consulting business from his house in St. Charles. Regardless of the fact that his company consists of himself and his little schnauzer, he has adopted the title “president and CEO.”

When we are given the freedom to pick our own titles, we tend to give ourselves a title that reflects our aspirations, not reality.

The same seems true of Missouri’s colleges and universities. Central Missouri State University, a moniker that the state institution of higher learning in Warrensburg has held for 34 years, has now changed to the University of Central Missouri, or UCM. Not to be confused with UMC, a designation that the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri recently downgraded in favor of MU, not to be confused with MSU, which is the former SMSU.

Sometimes the logic behind these name change games is hard for us non-academics to understand. But understanding the politics and motivations of higher education institutions is not difficult if you just remember one concept: They all want to be Harvard. Or perhaps more accurately, every institution aspires to move up on the higher education great chain of being.

Universities and colleges are classified according to the Carnegie Classification System, which includes dozens of categories for institutions of higher learning. For us lay people, the basic scheme is this: Colleges offer two- or four-year degrees, universities offer four-year degrees, plus master’s degrees and perhaps doctorates. Research universities offer doctorates and often start their names with “University.”

So when Central Methodist College in Fayette became Central Methodist University, it was changing its name to reflect the fact it had moved up a notch and now offered master’s degrees. Likewise, CMSU, which aspires to be a research university, has renamed itself UCM, reflecting the perception that it, too, has moved up a notch.

Most people don’t realize the University of Missouri has a monopoly on granting doctorates among public institutions in Missouri. Washington University, a private institution, is the only other place in the state that offers doctorates in its own right. Part of the motivation for the recent name changes for MSU and UCM is that they want to take the next step and grant doctoral degrees as well.

I have a theory about why all higher education institutions want to “move up” to the next level instead of competing with their peers. Most institutions hire faculty who received their degrees from institutions that are above them on the institutional ladder. It is a perplexing situation. While a university might laud the excellence of its graduates, it would never hire them.

For example, MU produces many doctorates each year but rarely hires them as faculty. If you look at the MU roster of faculty, especially in the hard sciences, they come from the upper-level institutions such as Yale, Harvard, Cornell, etc. It is no wonder these faculty want to remake MU in the image of their alma maters. Likewise, doctorates from MU end up being faculty at CMSU and want to turn it into the University of Missouri, or in this case the University of Central Missouri.

Changing the name of an institution has several costs. Just changing the stationery and signage can cost several hundred thousand dollars. But perhaps more costly is the loss of a recognizable brand name – SMSU, CMC, CMSU, etc. In the business world, companies never abandon a branded name that is popular – it simply costs too much to create brand identity to throw a good brand away. The Nippon Electric Co. – or, as we more commonly know it, NEC – is not about to change its name just because it now offers more than just analog telephone equipment.

Here in Columbia, both Stephens College and Columbia College have smartly chosen to strengthen their existing brands instead of adopting new names, even though they could both be called universities based on their academic programs.

While there is nothing wrong with trying to improve an institution, I wonder if all this upward mobility is serving the public well. If every institution is vying to serve just the best students in its quest to become Harvard, where will the rest of us go to school?

The name change game being played by our public institutions exposes one sad fact: There is no coordinated system or plan for higher education in the state. It is every institution for itself, with the most politically connected ones winning.