It’s not going to happen right away, but one of the upshots of the restructuring of the state’s public universities may be a new name for the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
Championing the possibility of a name change is UW Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt. He hasn’t committed to the idea and seems well aware of the potential for community opposition. But he has been talking up the value he sees in a new designation in meetings with faculty and staff at UW Oshkosh.
“I would own that,” Leavitt said in an interview.
Under a plan adopted by the UW System board of regents, UW Oshkosh is expected to absorb the two-year campuses of UW Fox Valley and UW Fond du Lac later this year.
“Given the sort of once-in-a-generation, or even more than once-in-a-generation, opportunity we have in front of us, given this restructuring, why not give this serious consideration?” Leavitt asked. “This would be the time to do it if we were going to do it.”
He believes that a new name could strengthen a regional identity and set the stage for future success. “If you think about the future of the institution 20 to 25 years down the road–what we could be, what this region will be–what distinguishes us from almost every other region of the state is that we actually have people here.”
Those people work in a wide variety of industries, providing economic diversity and opportunity, he said. “So the question is, ‘Can we come up a name that captures that and really drives us forward?’”
He said the ideal new name would “completely differentiate us from everyone else.”
Staff from the three campuses that are merging have been assigned to a work group to consider a new name, and they are looking at three possibilities, Leavitt said.
The first is simply to keep the current names and add the phrase “a campus of UW Oshkosh” for the two-year schools. For the time being, that is the designation that will be adopted, Leavitt said.
Another option would be to extend the UW Oshkosh brand to Fond du Lac and Fox Valley. “That is essentially what everyone else is doing,” Leavitt said, referring to the other four-year campuses in the UW System that are merging with two-year campuses.
The third option would be an entirely new name, perhaps reflecting the way that the three schools that are joining under the Oshkosh umbrella are close to Lake Winnebago. In fact the website for the merging of the three institutions is titled “Lake Winnebago Region Restructuring.” Its logo incorporates a map showing the three campuses and their proximity to that body of water.
If any change is coming, it’s at least a year off. “We’re not in any hurry,” Leavitt said. “You can imagine the sensitivity of this.”
The UW System has established conditions for a change of names in the restructuring. These include getting approval from the board of regents and keeping “UW” in any new name.
UW Oshkosh would also have to convene focus groups “to hear input from community stakeholders and prospective customers,” according to UW System. A final stipulation is that the county executives in the jurisdictions where the branch campuses get financial support must sign off on a new name, the chancellor said. This requirement would mean coordination with Fond du Lac, Outagamie and Winnebago counties.
Leavitt said that he believes that he is the only chancellor in the state who is considering a major name change.
The initial reaction to the idea appears to be lukewarm at best. “I would be reluctant to see Oshkosh disappear” from the university’s name, said Oshkosh Mayor Steve Cummings.
Thanks to existing businesses like Oshkosh Corp. and OshKosh B’gosh as well as legacy ones like Oshkosh Trunk, the name Oshkosh has a global reputation and “is known for high quality–the brand has a lot of positives associated with it.”
The local university was once derided as UW Zero, Cummings said, but those “days are long behind it.”
Cummings also pointed to the practical problems of changing names, including the expense of developing everything from new signage to new stationery. “Cost aside, you would have a lot of alumni who would not be terribly happy,” the mayor said.
Jason White, the CEO of the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp., said there could be benefits from a new name. “There continues to be a regional identify issue in the region as a whole,” White said. At this point, he said he is not for or against a new name.
“At end of the day, what we need is a strong, vital, post-secondary, four-year institution in our community,” White said. “Whatever name is associated with that, that is still able to achieve the highest level of academic excellence, I’m all for that. The name means less to me when you consider that perspective.”
The student newspaper on the UWO campus, The Advance-Titan, recently published a critique of a possible change. “While UW Oshkosh has had a long history and has not always had the name it currently does, I believe there is enough current confusion with the restructuring that does not call for more confusion with a name change,” wrote opinion columnist Renae Karmar. “The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh name needs to stay.”
Image: The website for the planned regional restructuring of the local UW System campuses emphasizes their proximity to Lake Winnebago.