Many students, professors and alumni have experienced confusion between Penn and Penn State among friends and employers.
These seemingly innocent mixups have taken on a graver tone with the recent scandal in State College, bringing the University’s name under debate.
1992 College graduate Noam Harel and 1992 Engineering graduate Kenneth Lesch have gathered a handful of alumni to sign an online petition to administrators to change Penn’s name.
Lesch said the University’s current name is “boring, confusing and simply misleading,” adding that Penn should not be implicated as a state school.
In a New York Times op-ed published on Nov. 8, Maureen Dowd referred to Penn State as “Penn” — the moniker University of Pennsylvania students have come to own.
The original headline to her column read “Personal Foul at Penn,” and ended with the phrase “Penn scoundrels.” The article was later amended after a request by the Office of University Communications.
Harel and Lesch saw the recent mixup as an opportunity to bring up a proposal they have been pushing for years. Though the petition currently has less than 10 signatures, they hope for the “topic to be discussed at the higher level” and “get the ear of one of the Trustees,” Harel said.
They noted this is not the first time the media have confused the two schools.
An article in the Times a few years ago reported on a Penn professor who falsified scientific results, Lesch said.
“We thought: wouldn’t it be funny if it was a Penn State professor? A quick Google search showed that it was in fact a Penn State professor,” he added.
Nature — a prominent scientific journal — used to refer to Penn as the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, according to Harel.
“That’s the way that different campuses of various state schools are referred to,” he said, adding that he sent a message to the editor requesting a correction.
Since the University’s founding in 1749 as the Academy of Philadelphia, it has gone through several name changes.
It received its official charter from the state of Pennsylvania in 1755 and was renamed the College of Philadelphia. The University has since been re-chartered twice.
In the midst of the Revolutionary War, the University received its first re-chartering in 1779 and elected a new Board of Trustees, who believed the University of the State of Pennsylvania was the most suitable name.
In 1791, as a new group of state legislators took control of Pennsylvania, the institution was changed once again to the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, or more commonly known as the University of Pennsylvania.
If a fourth name change were to occur, the Board of Trustees would have to vote on a resolution. University lawyers would file papers with Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State for permission to amend the institution’s current charter, University Archives and Records Center Director Mark Frazier Lloyd said.
Although Harel and Lesch are unsure of what the name could be changed to, they want to generate a discussion.
“You can’t just choose any name and go with it. You have to make sure you have the rights to the name itself,” Lesch said.
Harel said the name “Franklin University” would be unanimously supported, but an institution under that name already exists.
They also suggested “Wharton” as a possible name for the entire University.
“Wharton knows how to brand,” Harel said, but added that students and alumni may be against its adoption.
However, when asked if the University is considering a name change, President Amy Gutmann said, “The answer is simple — absolutely not.”
“We are very proud of our heritage, we’re proud of our name,” she said.
“Penn” as a branding initiative was chosen under the administration of Judith Rodin in 2002.
“Confusion with Penn State existed before 2002 and will always exist,” Lloyd said. “But that’s no reason to change the name of the university.”
There are many schools in the Midwest that are in a similar situation, Lloyd added, pointing to the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.
The Communications Office monitors references and mentions of the University in the media and sets to correct misstatements.
“Penn is internationally recognized and regarded, and there would be no benefit or purpose in changing its name,” Vice President for University Communications Stephen McCarthy wrote in an email on Nov. 10.
He added that confusion “doesn’t come up very often, particularly with people who are interested in colleges or universities.”
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