Western State to pursue name change bill

GUNNISON — Western State College of Colorado’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously Friday morning to pursue legislation that would change the Gunnison school’s name to Western State Colorado University on July 1.

Western State President Jay Helman said the college already has a legislator in mind to carry the bill, which Gov. John Hickenlooper will have to sign before the college is allowed to officially change its name.

“We’re thrilled about it, and we’re thrilled to work things out with Colorado Mesa” University, Helman said.

Before Mesa State College settled on Colorado Mesa University for its name change last year, consideration of the names University of Western Colorado and Western Colorado University caused heartburn in Gunnison. Western State’s trustees worried having a second Colorado school with “western” in the title would confuse potential students. Colorado Mesa trustees and the school’s president, Tim Foster, similarly worried about western Colorado brand confusion when Western State considered those two names earlier this year. Opposition on both sides led to neither school using either of the names.

Foster said Friday he is fine with the choice of Western State Colorado University. Helman and Western State’s trustees discussed the possible name with Foster during a conference call Wednesday, and Foster and Colorado Mesa’s trustees said they would be happy with either Western State Colorado University or Western State University of Colorado.

“I think having those two words (Western State) together is good because most people refer to it as Western State. And it gets Colorado and University in there,” Foster said in a phone interview Friday.

Helman said trustees picked Western State Colorado University because it identifies where the school is and that it is a four-year institution with graduate programs. The four-word moniker also polled third in a recent survey of Western State alumni, staff, students and community members, gaining 17 percent of the vote among 2,357 poll participants.

Western State trustees said Friday the name may be a bit long, but it works.

“It meets our needs,” Trustee Noelle Hagan said. “It may not be perfect, but we acknowledge we were working with constraints,” Hagan said.

In addition to Colorado Mesa’s concerns, the college considered possible brand confusion with a Fullerton, Calif., law school called Western State University and a Portland, Ore., chiropractic school called University of Western States.

The board Friday approved the use of $130,000 from the college’s reserve fund to pay for initial name-change-related costs, such as creation of a new logo, sign and stationary replacements, and changing admissions materials to include the new title. The college plans to gather another $100,000 in private donations to help with the transition, then gather another $250,000 to $270,000 to pay for a more extensive rebranding and marketing campaign to spread the word about the college’s new name.

Colorado Mesa, which switched its name from Mesa State in August, spent about $400,000 on its rebranding efforts, according to Colorado Mesa Director of Strategic Initiatives Derek Wagner. Wagner was the only member of Colorado Mesa’s staff who attended Friday’s trustee meeting in Gunnison.

Western State chemistry professor Dale Orth said he doesn’t believe the name change is a “silver bullet” to attract more students or build programs. The school has already built two master’s degree programs under its current name, he said. But switching to university status may help students unfamiliar with Gunnison decipher that the school is not a community college, he said.

“If a student in Utah or Texas gets an email from us, a fraction look at it and say, ‘Why would I go out of state for college?’ They think it’s a two-year school,” he said, adding the school’s four-year status is “an important piece to communicate accurately.”

Sarah Newberry, a 22-year-old senior at Western, said she doesn’t envision many changes with the name switch, except the “university” title may help add prestige. “We will always be Western. No matter what the name is, we’ll always have a small community,” she said. “Plus, we can still keep WSC in our fight song.”


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