Names, Power, and Universities

There is an ancient magical belief that knowing the true name of a thing grants you dominion over it. An abiding thread running through magical practice is the attempt to discern or discover the true names of things. It’s funny how the belief in magic is mostly dead, but the concern over names lives on. Changing the names of things is viewed as a form of legerdemain that makes previous notions about the underlying object subject to transformation. The concept can most clearly be seen in the political arena, where getting your name for an idea or program used is considered vital in framing the terms of the debate. Names still have a great deal of power to shape our perception of the world around us, yet names don’t alter the underlying truth of the actual object. A rose by any other name would still have thorns or something like that.

The reason I bring this up is that universities provide an ongoing example of the power of names. Over in Missouri, there is a fight over what to call one of the universities. It’s an issue you can look at rationally and ask what the big deal is. Leaving aside the odd legal and financial issues that might pertain, depending on your state, why does the name matter? In one sense it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what the university is called. Same school, same faculty, same students. Nothing has changed but signs and stationary. In reality, the name matters a whole hell of a lot.

The last session of the state legislature saw a name change for Southwest Texas State University to Texas State University. This pissed off a lot (I think most) of Southwest Texas grads. One of the main reasons is that there already exists in Texas a school abbreviated TSU. Texas Southern is an HBU that is in constant danger of losing its accreditation. Most of the Southwest Texas grads I know did not want any possibility of confusion between TSU and the former SWT. They’re all pretty damn bitter about the change. Even the ones that know the underlying reasons* are mad. They think that some other solution could have been reached that didn’t involve changing the school name.

I can’t throw stones at anybody over this issue, either. I was sitting on the couch cheering when I read the recommendation from the Commission of 125 that UT drop the ‘at Austin’ from the official name. The University of Texas is located in Austin. There are satellite campuses throughout the state that need to be identified with locations. The main campus does not. One of my instructors was telling me when the change to ‘at Austin’ went through, the department would get mail back with the ‘at Austin’ circled and written comments like “redundant”. I’m wondering since it’s been in effect for a while now, are people going to get mad when they drop the ‘at Austin’?

To bring the ramble full circle, I’ll just say the old magicians were partly right. If you control the name of a thing, you have power over others. It’s not quite the same concept, but pretty damn close.

* The legislature wanted to consolidate the remaining state schools into a new university system for some reason that is obscure to me. I think cost savings was mentioned, although I doubt that will come to pass.


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