So what universities should call themselves is something I have strong opinions about. So when a conversation broke out on the subject last week, I knew that I would have to write a very long post on the subject. Now, I fear that universities will not actually take my advice here. Often, there’s a fair amount of history behind the name. In some cases, though (like UNLV and UN-Omaha) one proposed name or another (Nevada State or University of Omaha) has historical ties.

Franchise universities (University of State at City or SSU-City)

I’m not a big fan of the concept of franchising universities. University systems are fine, but the constant refrain of University of State at City gets to be pretty obnoxious when the only thing that the Universities of State often have in common is the name and a chancellor. Other than that, different location, different professors, different admission standards, and different reputations. I know that faculty at the franchise schools often like the association, but the benefits seem largely illusory to me. I’m not sure anybody confuses Colorado State University at Pueblo with the real Colorado State. The cost of which is that the sidekick school lacks identity. The University of Southern Colorado may be a regional state school, but it’s at least a school and not an appendage. For the flagship university, it dilutes the brand. Once the University of Texas becomes the University of Texas at Austin it is no longer the University of Texas. It is the best of many, but only one of many.

It gets even worse in states that have no flagship University of or even University of of note.. Seriously, Alaska? You have like three universities and all of them have to be University of Alaska? Alaska State University is available! University of Anchorage would be an improvement! I understand why Louisiana has more than one University of Louisiana with neither being a flagship, but that represents petty politics and a failure of the imagination more than anything. Other states of interest are Nevada and Nebraska.

There are exceptions to this, one of which was hit on in the post: California. The University of California system is what it is, and a school would be nuts to not want to be associated with that (assisted in great part by the willingness of UCLA to be a franchise school, albeit a premier one). The other exception is if you have a strong academic institution without much desire to be its own brand. Having a University of Texas at Dallas doesn’t particularly interfere with UT or UTD, because the latter can really succeed as an academically impressive satellite school and the former isn’t particularly diminished by having a satellite school of UTD’s caliber. The shorthand for this is that if a school doesn’t want its own mascot and its own sports teams, then maybe it doesn’t actually need its own name. Or put another way, being a franchise school is something you should grow out of – if you choose to – rather than something you grow into.

Bidirectionalism (DirectionDirection(ern) State University)

If there’s one thing that’s worse than the sidekickdom of being a franchise school, it’s being a bidirectional school. Then you don’t even have a name suggesting that you may represent up to half of the state, you’ve got a corner of it. The names are also invariably long and clunky.

And there are almost always better names available. Such things are subjective, of course, but if I’m wanting to tell people where I graduated from, all other things being equal I’d prefer a vast number of alternatives to University of State at City, and especially DirectionDirectionern State University.

Modifiers (State Modifier University)

Modifiers run the gamut from good to bad, though I generally place them above franchise and bidirectional, and often but not always below directional or city-based names. I list it first because it contains some of the best alternatives, even if they’re often not available, and some of the worst alternatives, which themselves need alternatives.

Ever since Pennsylvania had to figure out what to call it’s public university (with University of Pennsylvania being taken and all), State has become the default modifier. Mostly used for land grant schools (Oregon, Montana, North Carolina), sometimes used for HBCUs (South Carolina, Delaware, Alabama), and occasionally a regional university gets promoted to the name (ID, TX, MO). It’s a staple of university namage, which means that few are available (the exceptions being states with nigh-universal franchising). State is available for one of the Alaska schools. Also for UNLV, which could have changed its name from Nevada Southern to Nevada State without so much as changing its NSU initials. It’s a bit more complicated now, though, that there is a Nevada State College. And lastly, Nebraska State University is a more impressive sounding name to me than the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

It might have been preferable had more of the land grants either stayed A&M’s (like Texas A&M did) or gone with Tech, as they did in Virginia, leaving State open for other schools. Given the mission of land grants, it would make sense. Tech has also been used for mining schools (Montana, New Mexico), and some general purpose technical schools (Arkansas, Louisiana) or former technical schools (Texas). Some land grants, of course, still use the A&M name for their land grants (or, more commonly, their HBCU land grants). For those that have university missions that correspond with A&M or Tech, but need another name, the school known as University of Missouri-Rolla became Missouri S&T (Missouri University of Science and Technology), which is a good one.

As an exception to the California exception, though, I think UC-Davis – the state’s designated “ag school” could benefit from being called California A&M. That school is impressive enough that it could carry its own brand.

Nobody has done more modifier names than Florida. This is due in part to Florida being the largest state without any franchising whatsoever. It’s also a state with an unusually low number of (very large) universities. It has stretched the ability to use modifiers, thus leading to names like Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University, both of which we should consider alternatives for because their names make them sound like for-profit strip-mall schools. Okay, that’s going a little far, but for major schools – as those two seek to be and both of which have over 25,000 students – they should aim for something different.

So let’s explore the alternatives!

Directionalism (University of Direction(ern) State)

The bigger a state, the more appropriate directions in school names are. The existence of a Southern Connecticut State is kind of weird to me, and is not much more notable to me than West Rock University would be. On the other hand, Southern California! South Florida! North Texas! Northern Illinois! All of those make sense to me as representing a significant chunk of land, people, or both. This is particularly true in states that have natural divisions, which the larger states tend to.

The word “bigger” here is more direction at geographical size than population, though is some degree a reference to both. It was good of Idaho (geographically large, but not population large) to avoid regional markers even though the state does split into directions pretty cleanly. With few enough universities, though, you don’t need to go that route. Montana has a larger number of schools, and some of them servicing areas with little population, so throwing in Western and Northern is less of an issue and preferable to the franchising they ultimately did.

I tend to prefer hard directions over positional directions. South Florida being better than Southern Florida. Except in cases like California, where SoCal is referred to Southern California as a region and not just as a university. (The same can be said for Middle Tennessee, which I will mention shortly.)

Directionalism can often work for the bidirectional schools. It’s easier for Louisiana than it is for Missouri. Northwestern is mostly Western, Southeastern is mostly eastern, Northeastern is mostly Northern, and Southwestern is mostly Southern. And since Southwestern and Northeastern are UL-Lafayette and UL-Monroe, you could just go with South(ern) and North(ern) if you were so inclined (Louisiana Tech might object to Northern, though, as they consider themselves the college of NorLa, but it would allow Northwestern State U to at least keep their logo and LaTech might not be as threatened by Northwestern State as they sometimes act with regards to ULM. Two of Missouri’s four bidirectionals have also taken on new names (Missouri State and Truman State), so theoretically you have some versatility unifying the directions on those. Or you can use city designations. Oklahoma has multiple bidirectionals, most of which could be tacked with a unidirectional name (Southeast to South, Northeast to East, Panhandle State to West or something incorporating the Panhandle but not the State)

In the case of the Florida schools, there is one unused direction, so a consideration for Florida Atlantic would be East Florida University or the University of East Florida.

Exceptions, we have some. The University of Central Florida, for example, would probably do well to move down the list to a city designation (University of Orlando). Notably, UCF is one of those schools that asks to be referred to by its initials instead of its full name. That’s a sign of changing to something else is in order. Middle Tennessee State has allegedly been trying to change its name to the University of Middle Tennessee for years, without much success. University of Direction State is almost always better than Direction State State University, even if its a non-direction like middle. But it would be better if there were either a good modifier or a city designation for it to use. Unfortunately, it’s in a town called Murfreesboro, and that won’t do. The only possibility is to skip to the People Names section.

On the other hand, the non-directional name would still be an improvement for bidirectional states. Northwestern State in Louisiana, for example, is technically in Central Louisiana and UCL would be an improvement (albeit one that might jinx them for sports injuries).

City Designation (University of City, City/County University, City/County State University)

The larger the urban area, the better University of City works. If the city itself is less remarkable, City University also works. Sometimes that’s not available, though, City State University is a possibility (though not always the best one). (Where applicable, you can insert County instead of city.) No matter what you’re looking at, though, the more noteworthy the city, the more you want to identify with it. University of City is the tightest identification, followed by City University, followed by City State University. So if it’s Charlotte, you go with University of Charlotte. If it’s Greensboro, you go with Greensboro University. The only reason you would go with City State is if the lack of state is already taken (like San Diego) or if you’re bound and determined to try to keep some sort of association with State State University (see exception below).

Relatedly, I’m rather dumbfounded that Boise State University is still named Boise State University. Even if I’m glad they aren’t the University of Idaho at Boise.

University of City designations would work for Central Florida (U of Orlando), UNC-Charlotte (U of Charlotte). On the other hand, if you want to go with Boca Raton for FAU, Boca Raton University is probably better than the reverse, and Greensboro University is probably better than the University of Greensboro. For the same reason that Auburn University is better than the University of Auburn would be (though Alabama Tech would have been better than both). Miami State University is the solution to the FIU problem, in my opinion. The University of Miami is taken, as is Miami University. But Miami State University is available.

For the Missouri bidirectionals, Cape Girardeau University has a nice liberal arts university sound to it, though Maryville University is taken (by a university in Saint Louis, interestingly enough).

In the case of Nebraska-Omaha, I should point out that the university was originally called the Municipal University of Omaha, University of Omaha is the original name minus the word Municipal).

Exceptions, we have some. Fresno State may benefit from an association with San Diego State more than it would be helped by being Fresno University or the University of Fresno. Just as California is an exception for University of franchising, Going uniformly with City State University might be advantageous in that particular case. That would be Sacramento State University, though, and not CSU-Sacramento. (Likewise, Texas schools in the Texas A&M system might benefit from being Corpus Christi A&M instead of the University of Corpus Christi… maybe.) There is also a general exception if the city name doesn’t work. Murfreesboro is an example. Hattiesburg is probably another one.

People Names

Northeastern Missouri State changed its name to Truman State, and that was definitely an upgrade. James Madison University is a better name than any I can think of that’s left in the state of Virginia. Ditto George Mason. If you have a good president’s name to use, that might be something to consider. Tennessee has former presidents of significance in the form of Andrew Jackson and James Polk, so those would be possibilities. Both would be controversial, though, and neither are probably as good as even the mediocre Middle Tennessee name (if they could get the University of Middle Tennessee name, at any rate). It wouldn’t have to be presidential, so theoretically a school in Mississippi could use MLK if they were so inclined.


It is my considered opinion that the University of Southwestern Louisiana should have given up its dream of being the University of Louisiana a long time ago, and accepted the University of Acadiana as its name. Acadiana is the name of the region that it’s in (in Trumanverse, it’s the name of an entire state). I can’t think of any other example, though.

Category: School

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25 Responses to How To Name a University

  1. A couple random thoughts:

    1. One thing I’ve noticed about “University of City” is that they tend to be private and more expensive than public. (My pool of data is only two: University of Denver and University of Chicago.)

    2. I think the University at City sometimes comes about for historical reasons. In other words, there’s more to being in a system than sharing the chancellor. For example, take the University of Sangamon at Onionswamp (I’ve changed Big City to “Onionswamp,” and it makes a certain sense if you look at the etymology). It was created within the last half century or so and probably need to be a state school rather than an Onionswamp school both for funding purposes and perhaps for prestige purposes. Mayor Builder Sr. probably could not have and would not have raised the city taxes necessary to support USang at Onionsawmp, and he had a hard enough time facing down the opposition of people whose neighborhood the new school destroyed. (I do, however, think having a University of Sangamon at Onionswamp kind of dilutes the brand of University of Sangamon at Flagship Town. (Also, USang Onionswamp sees itself and tries to be (in my opinion unwisely) a rival to USang at Flagship Town.))

    • trumwill says:

      University of City can still be a state University.. University of Cincinnati and Louisville and Houston being examples. Two of the three had previously been privates. Some others (Miami, Tulsa) are private, but the rest are state institutions.

  2. fillyjonk says:

    My uni is a bidirectional named one, but then again, we’re a “regional” school (that feeds on the crumbs that fall from the table of the State Flagship School).

    I do think there needs to be a caveat about a university being named after a person: first, the person should be DEAD, and second, their life should be sufficiently well-researched to be reasonably sure there won’t be any ugly surprises. Can you imagine how people would feel if they were at, say, Tiger Woods University circa 2009 or so, or at Bill Cosby University today? (And I am in agreement that there must be some kind of geographic connection….you couldn’t just name a university in, say, Hawaii, Millard Fillmore University or something like that.)

  3. Peter says:

    The four university campuses of the State University of New York (Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo and Stony Brook) would be better off changing their names to something other than SUNY-[city], given the general obscurity and low reputation of the SUNY system. Stony Brook is heading that way, unofficially calling itself Stony Brook University.

    • trumwill says:

      Same with Buffalo, which seems to go by University at Buffalo most of the time.

    • superdestroyer says:

      The State of New York would have been smart to pick one of the four schools to be the flagship, spent money on its sports program, and created a reason for more high school graduates in NY to attend state universities.

      • trumwill says:

        Wait, are you suggesting that schools should try to make a name through a football program?

        (I think that’s actually what Buffalo is trying to do. They’ve started putting “New York State” on sports things.)

        • superdestroyer says:

          IF they would have done in 50 years ago, creating a flagship university and adding a big time sports program would have made sense. However, the reputations of the four universities is set in stone and nothing that the University of Buffalo (marketing name) can do to get kids of NYC area to go up there versus going to private universities.

        • nothing that the University of Buffalo (marketing name) can do to get kids of NYC area to go up there versus going to private universities

          There wasn’t anything that NYS could do given that the best schools in the state are two Ivy League schools. The best option would have been priming City College in the 1950s before it’s downfall in the 1970s, as that school had a decent reputation and a legacy to draw upon when compared to the other schools, and even that would not have been a guaranteed success.

          FWIW, Buffalo’s real drawback is that it’s seen as an engineering school, but it’s in Buffalo and the weather is terrible. It’s basically Stony Brook, but with less attractive surroundings.

      • Peter says:

        Binghamton is the all-around academically strongest of the four SUNY university centers, despite being in a rather remote part of the state. Stony Brook is the strongest in STEM.
        All four campuses have different origins. Albany dates back 175 years and was originally a normal school, later a teacher’s college. It was rather small until Nelson Rockefeller directed a massive expansion while governor. Binghamton started out in the late 1940’s as a two-year adjunct campus of (private) Syracuse University. The state acquired it after a few years and soon began a massive expansion.
        Buffalo started in the 1800’s as a private medical school, which later added undergraduate program. The state bought it in the 1960’s. It is separate from a SUNY college campus elsewhere in Buffalo (“Buffalo State”) which is a former teacher’s college. Stony Brook, the newest of the four, is the only one which was under the SUNY system from the beginning.

  4. superdestroyer says:

    If you look up the history of some smaller state universities, they started out as normal schools, the switched to teachers colleges, then to to directional college, then to directional university, then being sucked into a system. Texas A&M- Commerce has had five names. Yet, Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches has always had the same name. SFA probably had had the better deal.

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