When I started at UHD, other presidents told me that I was walking into a mine field. We'd have to make cuts, raise tuition, raise admission standards, and change the university's name--oh, and by the way, you have to do all of that in your first year. One friend told me, it's like walking into a Tsunami knowing its going to hit real soon.
Well, I came anyway. And, I'm glad I did. The University of Houston-Downtown is a great place. It has dedicated faculty and staff, devoted alumni, good support from the business community and local legislators, and has really dedicated students. Still, changing the name of a university is a very hard thing to do.
The last time it was tried there was a great deal of frustration on everybody's part. But, name change was already under way. The Board of Regents made a decision to change the name of UHD nearly two years ago, so now, it's time to decide what that new name will be.
When I arrived, work on an RFP was under way and soon a firm, STAMATS, was identified to work with us on the name change. I found them to be knowledgeable and experienced, as their focus is higher education. The firm held focus groups with students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Together, we met with key legislators, the UH system chancellor, and the chairman of the Board of regents. Then, they conducted online surveys of prospective students, current students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
On April 14th, they presented their results to the campus with recommendations for two possible names. We held several public meetings presenting the survey results, allowing everyone to voice their feelings--good, bad, or indifferent. I was truly impressed by excellent presentations, the research findings, the recommendations, and the reaction of the campus--which was basically supportive, but with lots of questions and comments. The Chairman of the Regents, Welcome Wilson, attended four meetings over two days and answered questions.
The presentations are online at this page. STAMAT's findings underscored reasons why UHD should change its name. First, there is a lot of confusion about UHD. Students, employers, and donors confuse the University of Houston-Downtown with the University of Houston. Students apply to one university and show up at the other. They start classes at one university only to find out the major they want is at the other. Donors will tell deans or even the president of UHD, "We gave already this year," (meaning they gave to UH, not UHD). Employers say my assistant is a student at UH, when they actually are a student at UHD. This week a UHD faculty was quoted on a local television station, but identified as a faculty member at the University of Houston. Earlier a UHD student spoke at the White House and several times corrected the television interviewer, who repeatedly introduced her as a student from the University of Houston.
The confusion is natural. Unlike most systems that have universities in different cities, the University of Houston System has four campuses within a forty-mile radius. UH and UHD are just a few miles away from each other and adjuncts often teach at both universities. So, changing our name will help both institutions.
Second, a surprising number of people in Houston do not know of UHD and many think UHD is a branch campus of UH. They don't realize that it is a separately-accredited university. A survey of Houston residents conducted two years ago found that only a very small portion of respondents listed UHD, when asked to name four-year universities that serve Houston. Those that did name UHD thought it was a branch campus of UH. STAMATS found that just under 50% of prospective students surveyed thought UHD is a branch of UH. More surprisingly, nearly one-third of alumni and currently enrolled UHD students who participated in the survey thought UHD is a branch of UH. Worse, even some UHD faculty and staff made that same mistake, although these were mainly part-time faculty and staff.
Third, UHD is located downtown and serves Houston, but the majority of its students come from outside downtown. In fact, only 15% of students live within the inner loop (inside the 610 loop) and nearly half live out of the 8 Beltway. Moreover, we have learning centers in other parts of Houston and are opening a learning center in the Northwest up off 249 at the old HP Center (now Lone Star College's University Park).
Focus groups and survey results emphasized several important qualities of UHD: small classes, its location to the downtown and nearby employers, its diversity, and the fact it is interconnected to the city. These are important elements of what makes UHD distinct and starting point for branding, as we begin to brand the university.
Given all these reasons a name change makes sense, but one that retains a clear identification with Houston and the University of Houston System. STAMATS recommended two names, which are actually variants of each other: City University and Houston City University. Whichever name is ultimately selected, the name would include a tag, "A UH System University" or "Part of the University of Houston System."
There are very good reasons for either name. Clearly, UHD serves the city and surrounding environments and we get most of our students from Houston and the surrounding area. As one alumnus observed during the focus groups, "The school is in the city, but more importantly, the city is in the school."
The proposed names permit the university to tie itself to Houston even more clearly. After all, as Houston grows so will our university. The dialog and interaction was very good. Everyone had a chance to react and voice their opinion. So, what are the next steps? We will hold more focus groups, hold a straw poll to see support for one name or the other, and report our findings to the Board of Regents.
The Regents will then vote on the names and select a new name for the university. Finally, the legislature must approve the new name, which will only occur if the campus community rallies behind the new name.
So, there's much work to be done. But, we took an important step forward. Now, the discussions begin.