Thoughts on the HBU name change

Houston Baptist University has invited its various constituents to a town hall meeting to “discuss the name of the University.” The notion of a possible change is now the hot topic du jour. As both a loyal alumnus and a member of the marketing staff (University Communications) I wanted to offer my perspective, and perhaps address a few of the fears and misconceptions that have surfaced.

First, let me state my support for a name change. Even though a new one has not been proposed, I think the move will mark a positive turning point in the history of the institution by allowing it to be more effective in its mission while—despite rumors—maintaining its Baptist identity in the ways that matter.

THE SAME MISSION, A BETTER EXECUTION

Some alums have expressed anger that the University is abandoning its values for money or higher application rates. While these things are an expected and welcome side-effect, the accusation is simply unfounded.

Anyone who knows Dr. Robert Sloan or has read the Ten Pillars vision—authored with the assistance of Dr. Hunter Baker—should know that the centrality of Christ in higher education is the guiding principle of the University’s leadership. Every change that has been made in the last six years—enhancing student life, restructuring the curriculum, constructing buildings, adding/subtracting programs, etc.—has been done with the long term effectiveness of the University in mind. Effectiveness is what translates a written “mission” into realized impact

Dr. Sloan is widely recognized as a bold visionary precisely because he is unafraid to lift faith to its rightful place in academia. Moreover, he rejects the notion that this should be relegated to meager, secluded liberal arts colleges. This is what made Sloan so effective at Baylor, which now enjoys a stellar reputation. Yet, he was criticized there for taking the school in a more conservative direction. To say he is “selling out” reveals an ignorance of Sloan’s character and the University’s true mission. HBU is undergoing incredible changes because of an aggressive vision for transformative growth and influence. While change is often bittersweet—moving forward requires leaving some cherished things behind—I encourage alumni to consider the untapped potential of HBU and open themselves to new possibilities.

Of course, this is not simply about Dr. Sloan or the Ten Pillars vision. Discussions of changing the name have been buzzing around for many years. Early in the school’s history there was always the possibility of a major donor, and as Sloan was being invited to take the helm in 2006, new considerations were being taken very seriously. The only reason the idea is finally going public is because the University is reaching a new horizon and attempting to develop a national reputation. The big question is whether “Houston Baptist” is the brand we ought to build on.

The problem is that, while the mission of the University holds just as fast to its Baptist heritage and its own historical roots as ever, the current name does not reflect the true nature of the institution. “Houston Baptist University” implies three inaccuracies: (1) that it is a school for, of and by Baptists, (2) that it is primarily a school for Houston residents, and (3) that its curriculum may be oriented toward vocational ministry. In fact, the University has a very ecumenical approach that is welcoming to ethnic, cultural and theological diversity; it desires to “recruit for national influence”; and its curriculum and program offerings are quite broad. The false impressions created by the name make it more difficult for HBU to reach and engage its target audiences. One of the several reasons for this is…

LIKE IT OR NOT, “BAPTIST” HAS BAGGAGE

In order for the University to improve its quality, reputation and influence—which I assume most supporters of HBU want—it must have a “brand” that is inclusive and free of baggage. Though many do not want to admit it, the word “Baptist” raises hurdles.

Such an explicit denominational display turns away many potential students, donors, sponsors, faculty and staff—many of whom, like me, are faithful Christians. This fact has been backed up by both experience and empirical research. A perfect example is the high school student who walks up to the admissions table at a college fair and says “Oh, that’s what HBU stands for… well, I’m not Baptist, but do you know where the Baylor table is?”

The data shows that while most Houstonians can recognize the name, they know nothing else about it. HBU is associated with Baptist education, not quality education. Thus, the University’s ability to attract non-Baptist involvement is severely deficient. But this isn’t just about making non-Baptists feel more welcome; future students of all denominations would be well-served by a University that is gaining greater recognition for excellence.

I can share a personal anecdote. In my junior and senior year I attended several of out-of-state seminars and conferences, and applied to a number of graduate schools. In each case I faced an obstacle in the name of my alma mater. With “Houston Baptist University” on my name tag, people were immediately skeptical, supposing that I might be an undereducated fundamentalist with a biased and narrow perspective. Of course, these stereotypes can be overcome, but they are an impediment, and in some cases the first impression is all one gets. As someone heavily steeped in the discourse of politics and economics, it is important that people view my education as credible and unbiased. A name change will allow students like me to introduce themselves on neutral ground, giving them a better shot at their top-choice fellowships, internships and graduate programs.

LOOKING FORWARD

I think HBU has incredible potential to offer something that is truly one-of-a-kind in the world. The University will soon be the only Christian institution of higher learning in a major metropolitan location, offering a liberal arts core, a broad set of majors, Masters and Doctoral programs and NCAA Div 1 athletics. On top of that, new developments are underway to expand and revitalize the campus and community. Great things are in store for all who support the mission of HBU, but we must be forward-looking enough to see the great blessings that lie not just behind us, but on the road ahead.

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7 Comments

  1. Mr. Gant, your analysis is fatally flawed. Your assumption is that having “Baptist” in the name ultimately changes the decision some would make about attending or not attending. However, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for Dallas Baptist University that still beats HBU in attendance numbers and donor dollars or for East Texas Baptist University that is also beating HBU in attendance numbers and donor dollars.

    People don’t make a decision on education based on the name of the University. They make those decisions based on familial, financial, and scholastic reasons. If Sloan and the board want to raise numbers and revenue, they should work to attract better scholars, build up their community programs, and lower the price. Name is beside the point. Much like in taxes, you lower prices and increase the amount of people paying in ending in more revenue but I digress. It is not likely that anyone has decided against SMU, DBU, ETBU, HBU, CLU, or any other institution with a denominational name in its title based solely on that consideration.

    You also appear to have a misunderstanding of the creed and the mission of the University. The one major defense of the change is based on the fact that the creed and mission of the university are distinctly Evangelical versus being distinctly Baptist. Thus, changing the name to reflect that would make sense. Taking Baptist out of your name doesn’t somehow make you more Baptist. Look at Churches that make that move. They don’t suddenly become more involved in their denomination after that. HBU’s mission from day one has been distinctly related to the Evangelical movement. It was designed to be ecumenical in a sense verses being a traditional Baptist school that would focus on preparing ministers and educators. I appreciate that about HBU.

    Ultimately, as an alumni, because I am a dedicated Baptist, this decision would give me pause in bestowing financial gifts on the University. I’d be given to wonder if perhaps a different institution, more in line with my values as a Baptist, would be more deserving of the money God has made me steward of.

    1. Your donations should go to the people of this university, not the hollow stance in a name. If you give solely based on the name of a school, I question your dedication as an alumnus. You should be an alumnus of the people you met, the experience you had, and the education you received. If your loyalty is name-deep then why even care at all?

    2. DBU and ETBU aren’t exactly paragons of national academic excellence, nor should any university envy their endowments. Your thinking is fatally flawed; you’re using comparatives (poor ones) when you should be thinking in terms of superlatives. What is the best course of action? Wesley is precisely correct in assessing the first impression that a name like HBU (or ETBU – who by the way want to change their name; or DBU) evokes. It is regional and misleading.

      People do make decisions based upon the name. There is empirical data to prove it. Furthermore, a good name (anything other than HBU) may not add a ton, but a bad name (HBU) can create “hurdles” as Mr. Grant has called them.

      They are not forsaking their Baptist identity or mission, they are only discarding a divisive, polemical, regional, narrowing name that often prevents any such school of a like name (again there is available testimonies and data) from employing faculty of highest quality and larger donations from Christians, who may not necessarily be Baptist. You are right in that they should find excellent faculty; you are mislead if you think nationally leading faculty will be attracted to a regional institution that wears her (often parodied) denomination on her sleeve. Be innocent AND shrewd.

      Please continue to support your nourishing mother who does not desire her children to be antagonistic or divided over what should be a simple and obviously beneficial change.

  2. Christopher, I appreciate the comments but your evidence does not falsify my hypothesis. The biggest problem is in the very first impression, which many people never move beyond. Sure, many people will learn that it is a great school and decide to attend regardless, but many more will never take the time to learn. Of course, a university can overcome any obstacle in time, the point here is that we are able to move more quickly with fewer hurdles.

    Furthermore, the HBU leadership is working on every front to improve quality and lower costs, like you suggested, and this should be an indicator of the motivations behind the change. And there is simply no merit to the argument that changing the name means we are changing values, mission or identity. Removing barriers so that the university can reach more people ought to be lauded.

  3. I’ll leave the name change to people more involved in HBU. I just want to comment on an effect we saw when A&M stole A&I and changed name. Over 50% of the alumni assn disappeared and many never came back. The offical assn changed its name to Javelina AA Still only a few came back. That’s a lot of support to lose. Now the unhappy ones have formed their own unofficial A&I Alumni Assn in competition to the official one-even producing their own A&I T-shirts etc.
    Personally I didn’t mind the change until I started using the short name :TAMUK. Try pronouncing that.

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