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University status eyed for colleges

Some state colleges are pursuing a name change, hoping to attract top students, big-money donors, and more prestige. Like Harvard, Brown and Yale, they want to be "universities."

"I think Salem State University would be terrific," said Joe DeNisco, 21, of Peabody, a senior at Salem State College. "The change in name would solidify us in the eye of a lot of people."

Bridgewater State and Salem are leading the charge, and presidents of other state colleges say they would probably follow suit if the two colleges get the necessary approval. A bill filed last month in the Legislature would allow a state college to become a university if it grants doctorate degrees or at least 50 master's degrees a year. Currently, the Legislature considers name changes on a case-by-case basis.

"If the others change their names, so do we in the spirit of equity and being competitive," said Robert V. Antonucci, president of Fitchburg State College.

Bridgewater and Salem State leaders say the name change would also help them as they try to start up their first doctoral programs -- something state law prevents them from doing as state colleges. If they succeed with the name change, they would not suddenly join the University of Massachusetts system. The state would maintain a two-tier system of four-year institutions, but one set would include schools known as "state universities" or "state colleges," and the other group would be the UMass schools.

Bridgewater State College president Dana Mohler-Faria, Governor Deval Patrick's education adviser, said the Bay State is way behind the nation in adopting the state university moniker.

"It will clearly raise stature," said Mohler-Faria, speaking in his capacity as college president.

The state colleges might have a better chance of winning grants as universities because the title is considered more prestigious, Mohler-Faria and other college officials said.

The state colleges, like many others across the nation, say that changing their title is a part of their evolution. Most of the nine state colleges started as normal schools, or teachers colleges, in the 1800s, enrolling primarily women pursuing teaching careers. They became state colleges in the 1960s and began offering an array of academic programs.

"We have been putting things in place for a long time to move to university status," said Nancy Harrington, president of Salem State, whose trustees endorsed a name change in October.

Over the last decade, Salem State, a largely commuter school, has built an apartment-style dormitory and converted an old light bulb factory into a high-tech business school with wireless classrooms and smart boards and a state-of-the-art recital hall. It has also added master's degrees in such programs as communications, criminal justice, and education administration.

Salem, which had only a few hundred students more than four decades ago, now has 5,500 day students and 10,000 evening students, and has 33 buildings on five campuses, making it the state's third largest public higher education institution, behind the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Boston.

The colleges say they would bring the new name to campuses on a shoestring budget. They would probably replace stationary only as it runs out and their signs when they could afford it.

Adding doctoral programs, though, would require additional state funding. Full-time professors, who are qualified to teach doctoral courses, could demand salaries higher than $90,000.

Officials at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire said that shedding the state college name five years ago helped double its graduate school enrollment as well as increase its endowment and the grant money it receives.

Should the state colleges make the switch, Massachusetts would join the roughly 45 states that have allowed their state colleges to become state universities, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Robert Connolly, a UMass spokesman, said he doubts that having a second university system in Massachusetts would detract from UMass. "Our brand is so well established that I don't really imagine there would be any room for confusion," he said.

Alexander C. McCormick, a senior scholar who works on the classifications of colleges and universities at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said the zeal to sound bigger could backfire. The change could scare away students who prefer the charm of a small college, where most students and professors know each other by name.

"It's just a pity they can't embrace the many attributes of a college," he said.

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