Name change should be on the docket this fall

So much for “the last thing the world needs is another Jimmy Lemke rant on why Milwaukee should be the only name for the program.”

Apparently I was wrong.

Milwaukee. That’s the only name that can work. Allowing UWM opens the Pandora’s Box. That’s just how it is. No one in California or New York knows who UWM is, so UWM begets UW-Milwaukee. UW-Milwaukee begets Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which in turn opens the world to the most ridiculous names you can come up with for a program that says “Milwaukee” on the court and “Milwaukee” on the jerseys.

I get that Milwaukee is a difficult brand in the city, because Milwaukee could mean any number of things. Milwaukee could mean the Bucks, Brewers, Wave, Admirals, etc. I get that. So you come up with a secondary brand. But we’re lazy. We’re so lazy that we continue to believe that UWM is acceptable, because it’s widely used in the city to describe our university. But outside the city? Even in this state, UWM can confuse. Most people think you’re referring to UW-Madison. That UW-Madison prefers the acronym UW is neither here nor there. UWM means Madison to them, and it means absolutely nothing to anyone beyond the state borders. Which is how you get “Milwaukee-Wisconsin” as a reference from a recruiting authority, as in someone who covers college basketball for a living and therefore should know the difference.

If someone who covers college basketball for a living doesn’t get it, who else is missing the point? Pretty much everyone.

I’m well aware that the university’s administration in the past has preferred that UWM remain a part of the athletic department’s branding. Somehow, I’ve never had the discussion with Michael Lovell or any current administrators, so I can’t assume that they know one way or the other.

The old argument, the one that I heard from previous administrators, was that Milwaukee is part of the UW System and should keep that nod in its athletics brand. This is disappointing to me, not least of which because it means that the university’s administration believed that we weren’t strong enough to stand on our own two legs. I sure hope that our current administration is confident enough that we could stand on our own merits even if the student vote in 2006 had changed our name to the Jedi Academy.

Fair or not, athletics is the front porch of the university. Eighty-five percent of all news coverage on a university surrounds its athletics program. And while we will never lose sight of the university’s true academic mission, we must at least be aware of the athletics program’s shortcomings and be willing to do what we can to fix those problems.

After all, if most of the attention paid to the university is in athletics, and people don’t even know what to call the program, they’re definitely not calling to enroll in your school.

This is a problem that has existed as long as we’ve been a national name. Ever since Clay Tucker routed Butler in the Horizon League Championship game in 2003, this university has found itself not just a local and regional brand but a nationally-known school. If we are to pull our student body from a national pool, then we must have a national name brand.

This doesn’t require anyone to vote on anything. It doesn’t require approval from the Board of Regents, and it doesn’t require approval from the student body. Legally, the name will remain the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. We do not need to turn in our diplomas and get new ones. We do, however, need to brand this school with a name that commands respect, and you really only have two choices: the University of Milwaukee, or Wisconsin State University.

I’ve made it clear that I prefer the former, but the truth is either would be a tremendous improvement over UWM and the latter has advantages in the fact that Madison will probably find it easier to stomach (since in most cases ___ State University is a lesser school than University of _____) and we have some history as Wisconsin State (in one way or another, we were Wisconsin State from our inception in 1885 until graduating to UWM in 1956). The negative effect of Wisconsin State is that we’d likely change the actual name of the university, since it’s a far cry from UWM – at least the University of Milwaukee can be seen as a variation of UWM, much like the University at Buffalo is a variation of SUNY-Buffalo.

To be perfectly honest, while it matters a great deal which one we change into, what matters far more is that we change. Either name gives the university more credibility locally, state-wide, regionally, and nationally.

The fact of the matter is, this school has a serious branding issue, and that problem has manifested itself time and time again in many different ways. It comes to my attention because brand identity is so important to an athletics program, but arguing that it doesn’t negatively affect academics is foolish.

The year is 2013, and a valid point would be that by now, we should have already changed our name if we were going to change. But schools have changed their brand even recently in athletics and academics. An example from earlier, the University at Buffalo, actually rebranded (at least on its football jerseys) to put emphasis on the New York part of their name. We can’t do that, since there happens to be a team known as Wisconsin, and NYU doesn’t really play athletics.

But other schools have done it. Memphis State became Memphis in the early 1990’s. Southwest Missouri State of the MVC dropped the direction to become Missouri State about five years ago. Even around here, MATC Madison (to avoid confusion with the Milwaukee MATC) rebranded itself as Madison College. Carroll College changed to Carroll University. In 2005, the New York Times published a piece discussing the exact kind of move I am suggesting right now.

In the past ten years, this university has dramatically changed itself. The athletics program has moved to the national stage, but more importantly the academics are far down the road past 2003. Research is a big deal at this school, with the university adding the School of Public Health and the School of Freshwater Sciences, both colleges with research that has great positive effect on the Milwaukee area. We have expanded our footprint with those two schools, the purchase of Columbia Hospital, the addition of multiple student dormitories to the south and perhaps the most important, Innovation Park in Wauwatosa.

What I see is a school that has taken as big a leap forward from 2003 to 2013 that it did from 1945 to 1955. It is time, once again, for the evolution of this university to be reflected in its name. We need the kind of brand name that will be inviting to students and sports fans alike. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is my alma mater, my home and one of my great loves. But she needs a new name, one that doesn’t scream “half in, half out.” This school needs to be all-in on its future and the future of the community.

We can continue to be UW-Milwaukee, and on the same level as Oshkosh, Lacrosse, Whitewater and Green Bay – at least as far as public perception goes. Or we can recognize that as time has changed, the university can and must take initiative to secure its brand identity for the next 50 years.

Otherwise, we’re just another hyphen school with a confusing name.

One Comment

  1. Nic

    September 12, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Great post, Jimmy. I think that even without regard to athletics, it’s just time for the university to change its name, just as its done consistently throughout its history whenever a major change in its academic philosophy has occurred.

    The simple fact is, this is not the same institution it was in 1956, or even 1996 for that matter. All of the research the university is doing now, including the School of Freshwater Sciences and the School of Public Health, would’ve been unheard of just 20 years ago.

    Not to mention how there’s now just as big a contingent of students from Dane County and the Fox Valley as there are from any county in Metro Milwaukee, with a significant number of students from Illinois, Minnesota, and outside of the US thrown in for good measure. In other words, this hasn’t been a commuter campus for quite some time.

    It’s time for a new name to reflect all of this.

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