Move afoot at Mesa State to seek university status

With new buildings, new students and new academic programs, many people are wondering when Mesa State College may have a new name: Mesa State University.

It’s a question the college’s office of institutional research and assessment posed this spring to nearly 1,300 Mesa State students, alumni, and employees, as well as local business professionals. Respondents on average rated “pursuing university status,” which would make room for more programs, more post-graduate degrees and possibly some research opportunities, an important goal for the college.

The inclusion of three graduate programs at the school since 1997, a doctorate program on the way, 20 percent growth in enrollment in 2009 compared to 2004, and large-scale projects such as the upcoming forensic anthropology lab have led many community members to believe it’s a matter of time before the college becomes a university, Mesa State Music Professor Monte Atkinson said.

“The normal expectation is: ‘When are you going to take care of that?’” Atkinson said.

Faculty members opposed to university status have told Atkinson they want to wait until the college is big enough to contend with large schools such as Ohio State University, he said.

Atkinson, though, doesn’t believe Mesa State will ever be that kind of school. He said keeping the school’s small, community feel as a university could help preserve one of Mesa State’s most notable attributes while still moving ahead. It’s a balance Mesa State senior and student trustee Ryan Hendershot said is imperative to the school’s future success.

“A lot of students are concerned about not having small classes” if the change is made, Hendershot said.

Hendershot said some students say they’re worried Mesa State will be less affordable or less accessible if the college becomes a university. But there are benefits, too.

“If students get that diploma that says ‘University,’ there’s a perceived quality,” Hendershot said.

There is some prestige associated with the university label, according to Mesa State Health Sciences Department Head Kristy Reuss. It could provide opportunities for research and grant funding and attract leaders in certain fields to teaching positions at the college, she said. She agreed with Atkinson and Hendershot that the change is only worth it if the college maintains close student-faculty relationships and a focus on teaching.

“I don’t want to change that. I don’t want graduate students teaching classes,” Reuss said.

Universities usually offer undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees. Mesa State has been authorized to grant baccalaureate degrees for 34 years and launched its first of three graduate programs 13 years ago. The college will soon offer a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree.

Valerie Dobbs, director of teacher education at Mesa State, another department that offers post-graduate classes, said she doesn’t expect her department or its ability to offer master’s degree programs to change much if the college becomes a university. But the title could make the college more well-known nationwide, she said.

“Increased visibility is never a bad thing,” she said.

Dobbs said a university could attract employers to the area because they’d know they could send employees to Mesa State for additional education at any level and recruit employees while they are earning university degrees locally.

Dobbs said she sees the university change as “a logical progression” for the college. But Mesa State President Tim Foster is undecided in the university debate. He said the college would have to be sure to fit the bill of a university before calling Mesa State one.

“You don’t just name yourself something you don’t look like and that you’re not,” Foster said.

Atkinson said the name Mesa State University may be the only way to help some people overcome the idea Mesa State is no longer a college of 4,000 students. That may not be the worst misconception to overturn, countered Lena Elliott, a member of the college’s board of trustees.

“What you think might be hurting us is really helping us,” she said during an Aug. 20 board meeting. “Parents like a small college.”


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