Regents, locals view college name from different vantage points

Picking a name for the merged university in Augusta was an inevitable collision course, like parents deciding which grandfather to name the first child after.
In this case, should it be named after the city or after the board?
Ironically, both camps say they are motivated by the same goal, even if they see different strategies for getting there.
Residents of Augusta and the Board of Regents that governs Georgia's 35 public colleges both say they want to set the school on a path for national prominence.
When other communities were ducking the merging of their colleges, Augusta volunteered. Local civic leaders motivated by boosterism thought having one, pretty-good-sized university would give them more heft than having two smaller schools.
Locals argue that including the city in the moniker will piggyback on Augusta's reputation for being host to the annual Masters Tournament. Actually, they hope the name will add to Augusta's renown as the school grows in stature.
Of course, success hosting a golf tournament doesn't necessarily suggest to the public the city would necessarily shine in the field of medical research. While the Masters may be one of the classiest of sporting events, it has nothing to do with cutting-edge science or academics.
Despite a few examples like Boston University and the University of Chicago, schools named for small cities tend to be community colleges or undistinguished state schools, and that's a connotation the board wants to avoid.

"If we're going to have a first-class institution, which we're working to build in Augusta, we need to have a national presence," said Regent Neil L. Pruitt, Jr.

That strikes Augustans as an insult.

Residents of Georgia's Second City have a noticeable inferiority complex which makes them seem a little whiny to people in Atlanta. It's no secret that while most Atlantans enjoy football in Athens and sightseeing in Savannah, they don't feel much connection to the rest of the state, as if Alabama included everything outside of a handful of counties.

Pruitt, for instance, said he was relying on the fact that the names were tested nationally by a marketing survey firm.

Of course, of all the words in the English language to pick other than "Augusta," the board may still have wound up with a liability. For one thing, it could spark a lawsuit from Regent University in Virginia, a faith-based school founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson and the holder of federal trademark protection for use of the name in an educational setting. If not a lawsuit, then perhaps a lightning bolt from Heaven.

Regent University isn't known for science research any more than the Masters Tournament is. If nothing else, the name could lead to confusion, notes Regent University President Carlos Campo.

Like a father who names his son Junior, the members of the Board of Regents says critics are looking at it the wrong way. The name guarantees they'll continue to have a protective sentiment toward their namesake school, the favorite child, so to speak. No parent would say that in hearing range of the other kids, but look at what else the board did moments after christening the school.

The board voted unanimously to build a $100 million cancer center as part of a goal to get national recognition. It approved $2 million more in funds to jumpstart residency programs for the school's graduates, and it endorsed $5 million to equip the medical commons building it also agreed to expand.

The total of projects under way or approved comes to $1.2 billion that the state will infuse into the Augusta economy, notes Regent Tommy Hopkins, a graduate of the Medical College of Georgia.

"To continue this exponential growth, the university needs a partner from more than just Augusta," he said. "We need a name that donors from throughout Georgia can support and not feel they are abandoning their local colleges and universities."

He adds that the donors from Augusta he surveyed can live with the new name.

While the members of the board may feel more affection for the school than for the city it's located in, they argue that the interests of the school and the city aren't in conflict.

"We need to acknowledge the concerns of the citizens of Augusta and make sure that, irregardless of this vote here today, make sure they know their voices are important and that (in the ) long term their support for that school is just so critical," said Regent Kessel Stelling, an Augusta native who now lives in Columbus.

In last week's vote, the regents -- probably with the prior approval of the governor who grew up just south of Augusta -- say they selected the name because they're as devoted to the school as Augustans are to their hometown.

"We stand on the cusp of what I believe is going to be the next great, research university in America," said Regent Dean Alford. "The vision is going to benefit them in Augusta and have a global impact."

(Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service in Atlanta.)

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