What’s in a (re)name?

Following the announcement that Linacre College, Oxford would change its name in honour of a major donor, Cris Warren explores some other notable identity changes in higher education – including one that might have been…

Oxford University’s eagerness to rename Linacre College as ‘Thao College’, in honour of Vietnamese airline tycoon Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, might have raised eyebrows. But, her whopping £155m in pledged donations for the privilege aside (a shame they didn’t consider the counter bid from Gary Lineker), it’s by no means unprecedented.

In 1996 Manchester College became Harris Manchester after carpet magnate Lord Harris gave them a (shag) pile of cash. Later that year, a gift of £20m from Syrian philanthropist and broker of the Al-Yamamah arms deal, Wafic Said guaranteed the launch of the Saïd Business school.

But Oxford isn’t alone in being nomenclatural-y (I’ve written to the OED with the offer of a donation if they enter that word into the next edition, so no letters to the editor, please) fickle. Whether to adjust to the times or top-up the coffers, higher education providers are perpetually changing their names. Here’s a selection of recent examples.

Green wash?

Billed as a “world-first sustainable office retrofit”, Cambridge University’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership will be rehomed in a former telephone exchange upgraded to boast impeccably ‘green’ credentials.

It opens in 2022 and cost £12.5m. Half of that money came courtesy of Lei Zheng, Chinese billionaire, boss of renewables conglomerate Envision.

His cash meant Zheng got to choose the name – ENTOPIA, a portmanteau of ‘environment’ and ‘utopia’. I’ll confidently wager the marketing folks spent more creative effort on the invoice than they did on that genius word-mash.

Cass for (no) questions

London’s City University recently renamed its prestigious Cass Business School in recognition of the unethical gains of the slave trade made by its namesake, Sir John Cass.

In 2001, the Sir John Cass Foundation (recently renamed The Portal Trust) donated circa £5m towards a new building for the City University Business School (originally est. 1966).

Although his legacy was well-known for centuries, the name of slave-trader Sir John Cass was reappraised after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

 

Little was made of the origins of the cash at the time – surprising since the place is literally full of economic historians. But following the Black Lives Matter protests of 2019/20, the school’s links came under intense scrutiny.

In September, the school was renamed Bayes Business School, after English statistician and philosopher Thomas Bayes. Rather depressingly, some staunchly Cass-supporting alumni were so enraged they publicly demanded their tuition fees back.

Another Portal beneficiary, the London Metropolitan University’s School of Art, Architecture & Design also recently dropped the Cass name.

The boot’s on the other foot

Renaming an institution cuts both ways. Traditionally, Bolton Wanderers FC has named their home ground for whoever paid the most for the honour.

The custom kicked off in 1997 as the Reebok Stadium, but Italian clothiers Macron got their name above the gate after cutting a better deal in 2014. Fans had often expressed discomfort with the balance of product branding over local heritage, and there were cheers when, in 2018, the University of Bolton, paid an undisclosed sum to buy the stadium and cement a connection with their hometown team. Prior to owning the stadium, the university had sponsored the Trotters’ shorts.

Can you Len us a few quid?

Len (that’s, Sir Len, to you) Blavatnik, the Ukraine-born billionaire and officially the UK’s richest person, stumped up £75m to, you guessed it, Oxford in 2015 for the construction of the Blavatnik School of Government.

Tenuous university name-changing connections to Blavatnik abound. After emigrating from the Soviet Union (which itself underwent a rebrand in 1991) and before being awarded a PhD from Harvard, Sir Len took a master’s in computer science at New York’s (formerly New Amsterdam) University of Columbia (UoC).

The UoC was originally King’s College but switched sponsors in 1784 as part of the nationwide rebranding of post-British America.

Down to a Tees

After nearly two decades of expansion and success, domestically and internationally, the University of Teesside decided 2009 was the year for a spot of rebranding – starting with the name.

A selection of new monikers – including Middlesbrough U and Tees Valley U – were mooted and surveyed. But after arduous focus-grouping, they resigned themselves to the name they learnt most locals and students appeared to be under the impression the establishment was called – Teesside University. All’s well that ends well; the rebrand budget for rearranging the words and deleting the ‘of’ from the sign was a canny £20k.

Shorter isn’t always sweeter

Few understood why, in November 2014, King’s College London proposed truncating the brand name (but not the legal name) to King’s London

The then freshly minted principal, Ed Byrne, reasoned that the term ‘college’ might lead future students and their parents to confuse one of the UK’s oldest and most famous universities with an FE institute.

That cut no ice with the 12,000 students, staff and alumni who signed a petition against the change. King’s (College) dropped the idea in January 2015.

Keele over?

Recent market research by the University of Keele revealed that more people had heard of the Keele Motorway Service Station (between Jct 15 & 16 on the M6) than the esteemed seat of learning (alumni including Priti Patel, Clare Short and Paul Atterby off of Antiques Roadshow).

Keele University made light of a survey that suggested the local motorway services was more well-known among the public.

 

Hence the tweet from the institution, on April 1st 2021, that henceforth, they were to be known as University of Keele Services. The campus makeover includes parking for articulated lorries, coin-operated massage chairs and a drive-thru Burger King.

Lincs with the past

The University of Lincoln has traded under three names in its (relatively) short life as a university.

The University of Lincolnshire rebranded after the millennium after its market research suggested county names are less appealing to students. Photo credit: Chris Goddard, Wikimedia.

 

When it launched in 1992, the university we now know as Lincoln was called the University of Humberside, a nod to its antecedent HE college and recognition of its close geographical ties to Kingston-upon-Hull. Its expanding presence south of the Humber estuary gave it cause to add ‘Lincolnshire’, to become the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside in 1996. They were, quite literally, covering all their bases.

New headquarters in the county town of Lincoln gave the infant organisation reason to rethink all their signage, letterheads and brochures. The Guardian reported at the time that the move to Lincoln was in response to dwindling enrolments at the Hull campus. Market research conducted by the university found that city names have the most appeal to students.


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