During my travels last week, I’ve learned that although change can be scary, change can also be seductive. Change can represent all that is new and exciting, an escape from the mundane, the challenging, and the ugly. Frustration with status quo can trigger change for change’s sake.
As an undergraduate, I attended a state university. It was great, I had fun, etc., etc., etc. But for my graduate work, I wanted a different experience. I selected a school called Westminster College. It was perfect for what I wanted: small classes, teaching-focused faculty, and talented peers.
Right now, the board, the president, the faculty, the students, and the alumni are embroiled in a debate about changing the school’s name. It’s been proposed that Westminster tack on “University” instead of “College.” This proposal appears to be a change for change’s sake.
In some situations, a name change may be used to escape unwanted attention. Following the tobacco lawsuits in the nineties, Philip Morris, one of the largest tobacco companies, changed its name to Altria. Mark Feldman, an industry analyst at Merrill Lynch pointed out that “this name change is entirely cosmetic in nature.” (link) The company itself changed in no significant way.
Other name changes come after a merger or a change in services. However, in Westminster’s case, there is no intention of adding varsity sports, inviting sororities and fraternities, nor increasing overall school size—characteristics usually associated with a university. So why change? A friend involved in the process mentioned a couple of reasons for the proposal. First, a perception exists in the area that “college” carries less weight than “university,” especially for an international audience. Second, Westminster’s board has several members who attended local universities, and these members do not understand why a student might choose a college versus an university experience.
Throughout the years, many words in praise of change have been heard. Change means growth and development, an opportunity to explore the unknown. I propose, however, that when we become so comfortable with making the easy change our first option, we’re cheating. We’re cheating ourselves, and those we deal with, when we make surface-level changes that change little and potentially harm a lot.
This post is not an argument against change, rather it’s an argument for making changes that matter. Throughout his career, Henry Ford made changes that rippled through multiple industries and left a lasting impact. From the assembly line to the 40-hour work week, Ford made changes that went to the heart of issues facing his company. Ford said that “most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.” (link)
All of Ford’s changes weren’t perfect. He raised “minimum daily pay from $2.34 to $5,” but he also “frowned on heavy drinking and gambling. [Ford’s] Sociological Department used 150 investigators and support staff to maintain employee standards.”(link) I hope my alma mater can take a lesson from Ford and make other changes that matter.
Changing a name doesn’t address any real issue if you leave underlying problems alone. If the community doesn’t understand the role of a college, educate the community. Other colleges much more well-known than Westminster—Amherst, Bowdoin, Wellesley, Smith, Oberlin, Barnard—would probably never consider becoming a university. They know who they are, and these schools are busy fulfilling that role for their students.
Without change we stop advancing, we stop growing. Westminster, I, and probably everyone else can benefit from a healthy attitude about change. But I’d hate to think of anyone making a change simply because it sounds better. Change exacts a heavy price, and I doubt Westminster has done the math. I’m an alumni of Westminster College. I hope Westminster University doesn’t make the mistake of asking me for money.