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Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs
Thursday, February 19, 2004
 

Sacramento Bee 2-19-04

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What do you call that university by the river? The new president steps into the name game
By J. Freedom du Lac

 

Four years ago, the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials were staged somewhere in Sacramento. Exactly where, however, seems to be a matter of minor dispute.
Consider clues culled from July 2000 news clippings.

The Washington Post reported on Marion Jones and Maurice Green and the rest of the fleet-footed gang from the campus of California State University, Sacramento.

The Los Angeles Times filed decathlon dispatches from Cal State Sacramento; the Tampa Tribune from Sacramento State University.

There were reports on Regina Jacobs sent from Sacramento State (Associated Press), Sac State (Santa Rosa Press Democrat), CSU Sacramento (Vacaville Reporter) and even some place called Cal State University (Baltimore Sun).

Can't tell the venues without a scorecard, it seems.

Despite the college-level identity crisis, things went well enough that the Trials are coming back to Sacramento this summer, to a place the Capital University Journal calls CSUS.

The only "CSUS" listed in the White Pages is the university's aquatic center in Rancho Cordova.

"CSUS - what image does that name conjure?" Alexander Gonzalez says, furrowing his brow. He leans back in his swivel chair and looks skyward. He is deep in thought.

Perhaps he is thinking he has better things to do right now than play this name game.

Or maybe not.

"Names are names," he says. "But this is im- portant. And it's one of the issues we're going to have to address."

By "we," Gonzalez may well be referring to the multiple personalities of the place over which he presides.

Gonzalez is president of California State University, Sacramento, as the institution is formally and officially known.

But unofficially - in conversation, in print, on bumper stickers and coffee mugs and T-shirts and elsewhere - at least seven other names are common: Cal State Sacramento, Sacramento State University, Sacramento State, Sac State, CSU Sacramento, CSUS and the Capital University.

And that's to say nothing of the derisive nicknames.

"A friend of mine who teaches at Davis calls it 'Slack State,' " says a snickering Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at CSUS. "I won't tell you what I call their place; but it has to do with manure."

What to call the place is no laughing matter, though.

Branding experts say it's a major issue - not just for CSUS, but for institutions of higher learning across the country.

A handful - like Cal, Yale, Morehouse, Stanford, Duke, Wellesley and even Pomona, where Gonzalez got his undergraduate degree - have long boasted well-known, well-defined brand identities. Even others have been actively attempting to crystallize their brands.

But many schools are still a mess when it comes to such matters, the experts say.

"Sacramento State is hardly alone in facing this issue," says Robert Moore, managing partner of Lipman Hearne, a company that has done extensive branding work with colleges and universities - including several in the CSU and UC systems. "It's a difficult issue that's happening in lots of places."

Says Rob Frankel, a branding consultant and author of "The Revenge of Brand X: How To Build a Big Time Brand on the Web or Anywhere Else": "It's a serious, serious problem. But institutions across the country are beginning to pay more and more attention to the real issue of branding as they intensify their marketing efforts.

"They need to tell people - donors, benefactors, student applicants, professors - why to choose that school over everybody else, and you do that with a brand message."

So now that he's announced his master expansion plan and released the findings of his athletics task force and studied the new governor's budget proposal and faced the CSU trustees, CSUS President Gonzalez is getting down to the truly important business:

Figuring out how to better brand a campus whose name nobody agrees upon.

"I call it Sac State, Sacto State, Sacramento State, CSUS, CSU Sac - all kinds of stuff," says Brandon Tipton, a computer science major. "Man, I've even called it Suck State and CSU Suck as a joke."

Says Gonzalez: "There's no consistency; it's all over the place. We need to resolve the issue."

By this, he means settling on a single common-usage name. (The formal California State University, Sacramento, will remain in place.)

Don't expect a unilateral ruling. Gonzalez promises to open the process to interested students, faculty, administrators and alumni.

"I've lived with the name for 40 years, and it's never been a major issue on my radar screen," says Judson R. Landis, chairman of the department of sociology and the ranking member of the full-time tenured faculty, with 40 years of service.

In fact, Landis has been teaching on the capital campus long enough to recall the days when it was still Sacramento State College. (It became California State University, Sacramento, in 1972.)

"I use multiple names, like I think most people do," he says. "I call it Sacramento State when I'm talking to people, and in my correspondence I call it CSU Sacramento. And I think most students tend to call it Sac State.

"It's going to be a tough thing to change, because the numerous names are almost normative. And it's awfully hard to change people's habits."

But not impossible.

At the campus across the Yolo Causeway, Maril Stratton tells her own branding success story.

In the late 1980s, Stratton helped change the common-usage name of what's formally known as the University of California, Davis, from UCD to UC Davis.

Now, just about everybody is on board with the newish name.

"We didn't have a big stick, and we couldn't force people to adopt," says Stratton, the assistant vice chancellor for public communications at UC Davis. "But we found that it just spread as people began to see there was a consistent identity for the campus."

About Sacramento State, Stratton says the school can retool its identity, though the change wouldn't come immediately.

"It's a matter of persistence and time," she says. "The more you talk about (a preferred name) and enter it into the vocabulary, the more people hear it and use it themselves."

Faculty members have long fretted that the athletics department favors "Sacramento State" (sans the word "University").

And for years, Donald Gerth, who preceded Gonzalez in the president's office, bristled over the common usage of "Sac State" - something of which even Gonzalez is guilty: During a recent discussion with campus visitors, Gonzalez said "Sac State" at least once.

"Only because I've heard it," he says. "But 'Sac State' could be 'Sack State.' What does that mean? Everybody sleeps here or does other things in the sack?

"It doesn't say much about us."

Rule that one out, then.

The far more favorable odds seem to be on Sacramento State University.

"There seems to be a lot of support for that," Gonzalez says.

Says the longtime professor Landis: "I think Sacramento State University would stand out more clearly than just being one of the CSU campuses."

Several other schools in the CSU system already use that naming structure, five of them formally (San Jose State University and San Diego State University among them).

Others - such as California State University, Fresno, aka Fresno State - have settled on common-usage names that ditch the CSU designation.

Still, not all of the branding gurus are sold on Sacramento State University.

"What do you think of when you hear that?" Frankel asks. "Local college - almost junior college. I'll bet you that's probably what the plurality would tell you.

"And it's completely underrepresentative. I'm sure that image sells the university so short."

Whatever the decision, Gonzalez might want to make it quickly.

In just under five months, the Olympic Trials - and the attendant media coverage - will return to his campus.

Whatever it's called.

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California State University, Sacramento
Founded: 1947, as Sacramento State College

Renamed: 1972

Colors: Green and gold

Mascot: Herky the Hornet

President: Alexander Gonzalez

Student population: 28,500

Fees: $1,256.50 per semester for full-time undergraduate students, $1,361.50 for full-time graduate students

Top degree programs: Teacher education, business, criminal justice, communication studies, psychology, computer science

Sports: Nine men's and 11 women's Division I teams

Regional reach: One in every 26 residents in the region is a Sac State alum

Famous alumni*: Actor Tom Hanks, musician Bobby McFerrin, TV personality Joan Lunden, filmmaker Joe Carnahan ("Mission: Impossible 3")

Semi-famous alumni*: Restaurateur Randy Paragary, California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, radio personalities Paul Robins and Phil Cowan, Bee columnist R.E. Graswich, Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas and Police Chief Albert Najera

Infamous alumni*: Sarah Dutra (sentenced to 11 years in prison for her role in the murder of lawyer Larry McNabney), Yazid Sufaat and Sejahratul Dursina (husband-wife implicated in al-Qaida plot in Malaysia with possible ties to Sept. 11 hijackers)

* Includes former students who attended -- but didn't graduate from -- the university