HBU Name Change, part II

Since my last post supporting a possible name change for Houston Baptist University, a number of arguments have surfaced to which I have yet to see a thorough public response. To some extent they were addressed in last week’s “town hall” meeting, but I wanted to offer a few follow-up comments of my own.

1. We’ve already put 50 years into our name, why start from scratch?
The frank reality of HBU’s situation is that, even after 50 years, it has very little reputation among the general public. Moreover, what most people assume—that it is a school for Baptists in Houston—is inaccurate. Part of this is because HBU has done very little advertising and has been content with its small size and relative insignificance in academia or even its own community. That statement is bound to offend, but an honest evaluation is sometimes painful. It was, at one time, touted as “Houston’s best kept secret.” Thankfully, those days are over and HBU is looking toward national prominence. With an effective advertising campaign and a more welcoming brand name—not to mention improvements across the board—the University can do more for its reputation in five years than it has in 50. Certain programs, like nursing, that have enjoyed a good reputation should be able to retain this as the University grows and improves.

2. Shouldn’t we have a name that lets people know we are at least Christians?
There is no correlation between whether a university’s name sounds Christian and whether it has an actual reputation of being so. Compare Wheaton with Southern Methodist University, for example. People will know HBU by its fruit, and if those matriculating from it do not represent Christian values, having “Christian” in the name isn’t going to help. Besides, the idea is to eliminate unnecessary barriers, not lower them. If it is a University for all people, the name should not imply otherwise.

3. If we name it something like “Morris University” no one will know what that means!
According to the Board of Trustees, no person in HBU’s history is more deserving of such an honor than Dr. Stewart Morris, so the idea is being floated as a possibility. But, it’s true, most people have no idea who he is. But how much do people need to know about Mr. Pepperdine, Mr. Baylor, Mr. Wheaton or Mr. Brigham Young? A name is what you make of it, provided that you have some control over the “brand” of that name, which is impossible with words like “Houston” and “Baptist.”

4. If we want more worldly approval, what is to keep HBU from following the path of so many other universities and moving away from Christianity altogether?
First, approval is not the point. The ultimate goal is impacting more lives and making a bigger difference, but that necessarily requires a certain degree of credibility and amiability with those we are trying to reach. To be “in the world and not of it” is not to live in a bubble, it means we should hold strong to our values while making every possible effort to engage in meaningful dialogue with the world. So how do we remain strong in our values? Only two things will keep HBU on track: 1) the preamble of the school’s by-laws, which can only be changed with a unanimous vote of the Board of Trustees, and 2) leaders who have strong convictions in line with the University’s values. In short, there are no promises, but the future leaders of the University are far more important than its name.

5. We should not be ashamed of our religious heritage!
See my last post. Those who say the University is running away from Christianity should spend more time listening and less time reacting. Perhaps fulfilling the University’s mission by taking “Baptist” out of the name sounds paradoxical to some, but shouldn’t the point be whatever works? I liked HBU senior Andrew Richardson’s comment from the last town hall: do you think Brigham Young would have been as successful if they had insisted on Provo Mormon University?

6. I came to HBU in spite of—or because of—the name, so what’s to stop others?
You’re not the one the University is concerned about. The question is whether HBU, in the long run, can better situate itself for maximum support.

“Houston Baptist University” does represent what HBU is in terms of its geography, values and institutional association. None of those will change. What it does not tell the world is what the school does and who it is for. HBU is for anyone seeking an education in which issues of moral or theological significance are part of the dialogue, and where one’s professors understand not just their academic field, but Christian faith as well. True, HBU is not for everyone—some prefer a purely secular environment—but too many potential students and supporters never take the steps to learn why HBU is right for them.

The fact that HBU’s name has constricted its growth and success is indisputable. While in some cases the name has attracted support, the opposite appears to be the most common. So the question is not whether HBU will be able to grow and build a positive reputation without the change; what we will be left wondering in 50 years is just how much potential we missed.

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17 thoughts

  1. 1. To your response: The same would be true if they marketed the Houston Baptist name hard and nationally. Changing the name doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easier or better for the nationwide marketing campaign. Experience and statistics show us that products that are advertised, regardless of name, sell better than products that are not advertised. Period.

    2. Changing a name inevitable changes a thing in itself. Words have meaning. You can’t have it both ways. Either the “Baptist” name has a meaning and a heritage or it doesn’t. What a name change is suggesting is that the word Baptist is a negative word; an idea which any Baptist should find highly offensive. You will, inevitably, change the University by changing the name. Whether that is for good or no is a matter for debate. Those standing on tradition by insisting on keeping the same name are standing on the safe side though. Why fix what isn’t broke? Is HBU somehow struggling because of its name. Of course not, thats rot and we all know it is. HBU isn’t struggling and based on your first argument hasn’t even tried a national marketing campaign as Houston Baptist and thus can’t possibly know the outcome of the marketing.

    3. Are you suggesting that the University of Houston, a nationally recognized university struggles because it has a geographical location in the name? Unpack your second argument a bit, what is Baylor, Pepperdine et al. known for? DING! Academics. (and sometimes athletics) Shore up your academics and do a marketing campaign and your name hardly matters. Just ask DBU, ETBU, or any University with a geographic location in their name. They’d tell you the same thing.

    4. Changing our name doesn’t somehow give us credibility in engaging the world. The world will always hate Christianity, Jesus promised that. So unless the University intends to hide its Christian roots, (Like Baylor, TCU, SMU) then there is no chance of achieving what you have suggested. Ask ORU or Liberty. Being overtly Christian means having enemies whether you like it or not. Providing a world class education is the only thing that will give us credibility in the world and we ought to be trying to do that anyway.

    5. If the past 20 years of Evangelicalism has taught us anything it should be that doing “what works” really means selling our soul. The Mega-Church phenomenon has created a nation full of “Christians” who can barely communicate the gospel if they even understand it themselves. You inevitably water down and compromise the truth of the Gospel. What “works” is remaining faithful to the scriptures and institutions that teach them. Anyone who has studied Baptist history knows that is what the Baptist movement is all about. Which is why HBU should retain Baptist in its name.

    6. A name is what the marketing campaign makes it. If Houston Baptist wants to be international, then make Houston Baptist mean international in your marketing campaign. Changing the name doesn’t make that easier or harder.

  2. 1. Any company can overcome a name problem, but it means you have to work harder and spend more money.

    2. I accept your point about the name changing the nature, but only to the extent that it will slightly shift the appeal of HBU to various audiences, leading to fewer Baptists, thus a less distinctly Baptist thrust. And yes, the University is struggling if we define that to mean it is unable to reach its potential.

    3. I am a grad student at UH. Names like University of Houston, Chicago, New York work because they sound like THE major university of a region. I am not as concerned about geographic issues as others are, but do think taking “Houston” out could help distinguish HBU from UH.

    4. The world only hates Christianity if you’re seeing in black and white. There are plenty of people of all faiths that would like what we have to offer, but are turned away by a misleading name. I agree that quality is the only thing that will give us a reputation, but again, a more welcoming name will help significantly.

    5. Sometimes you can do “what works” while retaining values, principles, mission, etc. It’s not an either/or question.

    6. The name absolutely does make it easier or harder to engage potential students, faculty, donors and others.

  3. I am just a alumni and am not well versed in the details of how to run a university, but just a few thoughts.

    First, I agree with everything Chris said.

    Second, HBU has a retention problem and changing the name will not fix this. What makes a university great are the products and services it provides, not just its name. The name does not make the school, the school makes the school. Compare UH with HBU. UH has substantially more amenities than HBU provides. It has more eating choices, more recreation choices, and more student services. While it takes time for a school to develop these, HBU should be trying to compete at this level despite any funding differences. When I was at HBU, we had 2 choices for eating on campus, the Baugh, and the coffee shop… Most students go off campus to eat as a result rather than staying. The less time a student spends on campus might mean the less they associate themselves with the school.

    Third, the name HBU does not “indisputably” confine HBU to the Houston area and to Baptist. Just like your above post said, there are lots of students who attend HBU who are not Houstonians and are not Baptist. I am not Baptist and I attended and I knew that there were a lot of non-Baptist there as well. Rather than be ashamed of the name, the school should embrace it. Dont cut tail and run. As to your response to Chris’ first point, your right! Hard work and spending money can overcome a name problem. So do the hard work. Just because its hard doesn’t mean you should just change the name. Furthermore, I disagree there is even a name problem. There is a substantive problem with the school and they need to work on boosting their academics, hiring more faculty, and changing programs around to boost HBU. Not change its name. The school is already heading in the right direction with the creation of the football team.

    Also, your point about Baylor and Pepperdine being named after people is distinguishable from naming HBU after Mr. Morris. Those schools were initially named after Judge Baylor and Mr. Pepperdine. Here, HBU has been named HBU for over 50 years now. Its like changing a horse mid stream, you dont do it.

    “A name is what you make of it, provided that you have some control over the “brand” of that name, which is impossible with words like “Houston” and “Baptist.”” – as to this bit which you posted, you are absolutely right with respects to the first half of the sentence. A name is what you make of it. So make something of the name HBU. You have control over it. UH has control over the “Houston” in their name. Dallas Baptist University has control over the “Baptist” and “Dallas” in their name. So do the same. Put in the work to find another way besides a name change to figure out how to promote the school.

    Finally, I have spoken to quite a few recent alumni, you know the kind that will be giving back soon. The consensus I have come across is that we will only give back to the school we got our degree from. That school is Houston Baptist University. Should there be a name change, my money is going to Baylor Law School instead.

    Thank you for creating a forum for people to discuss. Nothing personal to you. I think as alumni we get fired up over this topic. Maybe this is a clever scheme to get the alumni more involved! That would be genius then.

  4. Justin, thanks a lot for your comments. I agree whole heartedly that the University’s biggest problem has been the overall student experience. One reason for that has been leadership, but that has changed. The other reason is enrollment.

    Under a certain enrollment threshold it is hard to offer the kind of environment that UH and Rice can. If 10% of their population are strong, engaging leaders who stay on campus all the time you’re looking at 3-4,000 students. At that point you can keep coffee shops open all night, have events all weekend, and the whole student experience is alive! But if HBU has the same percentage, we’re looking at 250 students. To offer one example of this problem, we’ve been trying to get a Chick-Fil-A on campus, but they require a 4,000 student enrollment. The current name is viewed by many of the faculty, staff and leadership to be one of the primary hindrances to boosting enrollment, and research strongly supports that.

    But to your point, if you haven’t been watching, things have been changing quite rapidly at HBU. In the last 6 years the school has added a real coffee shop, a six-story residence building, a new building for the School of Art, a Cultural Arts Center to house a theater, beautiful chapel and museums, a volleyball court, an intramural field, a lighted soccer field, a fitness center, and places to grab lunch at SIX different locations on campus. A number of new programs are helping too, like Living Learning Communities, where students in the new Honors College, for example, can live and study with one another. “Freshman Village” (MRC and WRC) encourages new students to build friendships early on. Not to mention the move back to NCAA Div 1!

    HBU experienced setbacks after the economic downturn and Ike—the Brown building was shut down for 3.5 years, but is now back online with upgrades. It is amazing how much has been improved at HBU despite these challenges.

    I would encourage you to reconsider what you said about giving back to “the university we got our degree from.” First, it is indeed the same exact school. The name is window dressing. You didn’t stop giving because we moved to semesters, or went single major, or overhauled the core curriculum. This is a change—like those—that HBU believes will help it succeed. If you actually wanted to support the values, mission and product of the university you would continue to support it. Secondly, your comment about giving to Baylor instead makes no sense. If supporting the place from which you graduated is important, why would you choose a place you never went to just because your alma mater changed names?

    • I’ve been suspect about the values of the University since I went there. I imagine that if I were to give to a school the adequately reflects my values that I would give to DBU or Hillsdale College. I may would give to HBU out of nostalgia, but only if they did indeed keep their current name. Otherwise, the nostalgia value would be largely voided.

      It will work out fine either way I imagine, with or without me.

  5. Wesley,

    About your comment of me wanting to give to Baylor making no sense. First, logically speaking you are right. HBU changes its “insides” such as switching to semesters, etc. does not make me want to disavow myself of HBU. However, its a mental and psychological aspect that makes me say I would rather give to Baylor than HBU should HBU change its name. I feel that HBU is abandoning those who went there under the HBU name and while HBU is not really abandoning its older alumni, that is still how it comes across.

    Second, the reasoning behind the name change I think is what is upsetting most alumni. It is different if the reason was because HBU was involved in some scandal or fraud. However, the reason here is that the school wants to grow. Changing the name might offer some short term benefits of publicity. But, again, and as you have acknowledged, the only way for a university to grow is to change its programs and how it runs. You are absolutely correct in terms of the changes HBU is doing now, such as the new buildings and joining NCAA Division 1 are definitely a step in the right direction. Another aspect to keep in mind is HBU’s relative youth. Growth takes time. And now that HBU is heading in the right direction with the substantive changes it has been making, it will take time to see the fruits of its labor. Baylor and UT did not become popular over night and neither will HBU. I think the creation of the football team will definitely push HBU further in terms of gaining more students as well.

    On one final note. I have never met Dr. Morris and I am sure he is a great gentleman and a fine person. However, changing the name to “Morris University” just seems like the opposite of what HBU is trying to accomplish. The name does not evoke any strong positive feelings or thoughts. It would be different if the university had started out being called Morris University. But that did not happen. If I heard Morris University, I would not even know where or what to begin thinking in terms of location. Maybe that is what you want though since the marketing staff at HBU feels constrained by the words “Houston” and “Baptist”.

    Again, thanks for creating this forum. I think no matter what the outcome, it is always good to have a public debate and at least get some input and feedback from others. I know HBU has had a town meeting but has there been one just on this topic? Or is there an online forum to submit comments?

  6. Oh one more thing I just noticed. When I said I would donate to Baylor Law, its because I went to law school there. I did not pick it out of thin air. Haha.

  7. I think it is interesting that “The current name is viewed by many of the faculty, staff and leadership to be one of the primary hindrances to boosting enrollment.” These people more than any others have a vested interest in assuming that their actions and decisions are not the reasons for HBU failing to meet its objective of increased enrollment. Focusing on the name as the problem seems random and irresponsible. I agree with the previous comments that the name does not define – or limit – the University. Rather, the academic experience, the excitement of the community to hire the alumni, the engagement of the University in bringing positive change to the community, the desire of the alumni (and students) to participate in University life – these give meaning to the name.

    I graduated in 1983, and I went to HBU for the sole reason that it was a private university in Houston. I commuted, and was never on campus unless I had a class to attend. There was no campus life at all. That has changed some, but adding a museum, a chapel, a fitness center and a performing arts theater weren’t going to engage me and weren’t going to keep me on campus even a moment longer. A vibrant student center where young people want to interact, and fun, worthwhile student organizations would have been more likely to keep me there. A coffee shop would have been very welcome (even though they weren’t in vogue back then) and cost less than any of those cultural amenities, even if the coffee shop operated at a loss. Additionally, there were no employers recruiting on campus at that time, and unless I am mistaken that hasn’t changed a whole lot either. Graduates are largely on their own.

    I don’t believe I got an excellent education at HBU – I sailed through with a 4.0 and was rarely challenged intellectually. In hindsight I was very glad I was at a Baptist University, not for the academics but because the atmosphere and the student body encouraged me to party less. My son is a recent UH graduate and he received a much better education at far less expense, and had many opportunities to interact with potential employers through student-industry organizations, recruiting fairs, internships, sponsored office visits etc – during the recent financial meltdown! I recruit from HBU for my business, not necessarily because HBU has the strongest academics but because it is closer to my office than UH and because the graduates seem to be more wholesome, maybe even more Baptist (which I am not). Each year I have to re-establish contacts on the faculty for the purpose of recruiting because they are all temps and are gone after a semester or two. In my opinion, the revolving door for faculty is more of a hindrance to enrollment than the name. For the tuition HBU charges, students should have some idea of who will be teaching them, and they don’t. This apparently hasn’t changed since the early 1980s when most of the professors in my major were adjuncts.

    I have only recently begun supporting HBU financially, but like others, I would be less likely to continue if the name on my check doesn’t match the name on my diploma.

    • Laura, thanks for your comments. I think some in the administration would be interested to hear your thoughts. I can pass it on if you’d like. I agree, as I’ve said, that HBU has faced serious issues with its student life experience. I was a student from 2007 to 2011, and I’m still there most of the week as a staff member, so I have really been able to see the work behind the scenes to address issues over the last few years. It’s a process—you can only do so much at one time.

      Big changes have been made, and more are to come. But the name has always been a clear issue. Though it is obvious that many people do not feel that the name is a hindrance, they are only speaking for themselves. This is why research was done—to move from personal opinions to objective fact. Maybe the alumni could request a commission for a larger and even more definitive study.

      • Wesley, could you explain this comment from one of your earlier posts: “The fact that HBU’s name has constricted its growth and success is indisputable.” What makes it indisputable? Is it the research you mentioned? Will you let me know if and how I can look at the research and who did it?

        I’m curious, did the university commission research to see if anything else constricted its growth, like the issues mentioned by several of us here?

        I am skeptical that a name change (which I assume will be accompanied by an expensive advertising/PR campaign) is the most important change that HBU needs to make.

        And of course, you are welcome to share my thoughts with the administration. I have recently, and another mention is a good idea.

      • Laura, I’m not aware that the research is available online. The study looked at our “brand awareness” among a broad swath of potential HBU supporters in the Houston area. The key results were that (1) while people recognize the name “HBU” the only thing they know about us is that we are a Baptist university in Houston, and (2) a significant percentage of those surveyed held false assumptions about the school that would prohibit them from finding out more. Some think it is only for Baptists, others think it is a Bible college. The claim that this constricts HBU’s growth is simply the logical conclusion following from that evidence: if a person thinks a school does not fit their interests/needs, he or she is less likely to pursue any further information. Repeat this for thousands of individuals and the net result of this is many fewer applications, fewer students, a smaller school, slower growth, etc.

        In recent years, HBU has continually surveyed its student body, faculty and staff to see how it can improve the overall quality, and has made dramatic improvements. The name is just part of a broad strategy to increase the size, reputation and influence of the university.

      • Wesley thanks for responding about the findings of the research. A name change is not the only logical conclusion to those findings and not the only way to get around that, as many successful PR campaigns have done. “The other white meat”. “It’s not just for breakfast anymore.”, adults with a “got milk” mustache, etc. For example, I think non-Methodists know they can go to Methodist hospital. I acknowledge that changes are being made but they don’t seem to be the right changes. I’m not an expert but based on my 4 college age kids and their friends, I don’t think many college-goers care about a museum or chapel on campus.

  8. To be honest, as an alum, the change in name is not that big of a deal to me. I did not go to HBU because it was a baptist university. I went to HBU because of the professors, the small classes, etc. The name change does not change the culture of the school. Let’s say I decided to change my name to my middle name tomorrow. Who I am as a person would not change. Same goes here. Quite honestly, there are far more pressing issues, as already discussed by others here, that need attention.

    • You’re incorrect Dmathews25- Names mean something. Words have meaning. Changing the name will inevitably change the culture whether we like it or not. Ever been in a Church that changed its name? I promise you the culture shifted.

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