Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What in the Name of...

I spent the weekend driving up the east coast with my five year old daughter, headed to Homecoming at my alma mater - Eastern Nazarene College. It was an interesting weekend, to be sure. The college officially installed Dan Boone as President - a former professor of mine and also the President of Trevecca Nazarene University - he'll be overseeing a proposed merger between the two schools. It's magnanimous and appreciated, at least by me - Trevecca is growing and in great shape; ENC is in debt and struggling with enrollment.

Still, despite the difficult situation, there was nothing but optimism and good spirit at ENC. I'm excited that people seem to be on board with the uncertain future. Already great progress has been made to stabilize things at ENC and Trevecca has come in with lots of administrative and technical support. The various educational institutions of the Church of the Nazarene have long been duplicating services - it makes sense to have regional schools serving regional constituencies, but there is a lot of overhead that goes into running a college or university and I'm all for exploring how to do it more efficiently and effectively. If this merger goes well, there may be a few other schools eager to get in.

As I said, I heard nothing but optimism and well wishes for the school and Dr. Boone going forward. Perhaps it's a bit easier for me to understand that things are different, because I went to ENC during a time of transition. Half the professors I had in my first two years weren't there when I graduated and by my five-year reunion there were only two members of the faculty with whom I'd studied. Colleges are on pretty tight cycles; students typically stay only four years and things change quickly. But the spirit of ENC and it's mission seem pretty similar to what I know and love, regardless of the specifics. Outside of the financial issues, the student experience at ENC is ten times what it was when I attended; they've continued to make things better for students and that's one of, if not the most, important measure of success.

The one thing that did seem to be leaving people scratching their heads, though, was the recent move to re-brand ENC as simply "Eastern." As a pastor on the region, I got a letter about this move with a lot of sound thinking. "Nazarene" is a relatively unknown term that can be difficult for recruiting. People either know it as vaguely religious and their ignorance is a turn-off, or they know they're not Nazarene and assume ENC isn't for them. There can be debate about the value of the name (even though the education at ENC is thoroughly Nazarene and, I suspect, will be for at least the near future), but I totally get moving away from it in terms of branding. That makes sense to me.

"Eastern" in and of itself is not all that distinctive. Trevecca or Point Loma - other Nazarene schools that have moved this direction - have much more distinctive and individual names to use. I'll admit there's some level of emotional pushback on my part since I've literally spent my life (probably from the age of eight) correcting people who call it "Eastern," since it is most definitely ENC. I could get over that, though. I don't think I'd have too difficult a time hopping on board for the good of my school simply because they made a decision I didn't agree with (the new mascot comes to mind).

There's another issue, though, more directly related to the health and well-being of the school that's really given me pause. I hesitate to write all this publicly without having talked directly to Dr. Boone - I did see him twice this weekend, but he was busy and it didn't seem the right time - but I do also suspect he's heard this a time or two from other people. It was the most frequent topic of conversation I had at Homecoming and - oddly enough - I rarely brought it up myself.

You see, the reason I spent most of my life correcting people who call ENC "Eastern" (which is how most of the Nazarene world refers to the school) is because there's an Eastern University just outside of Philadelphia. It's also a small, Christian, liberal arts college with a very similar profile to ENC. If you're a Christian kid looking for a Christian school in the Northeast, you're bound to consider both of them. In fact, if you go to eastern.edu, you'll be at their website - something tomorrow's students might do by mistake for ten or twenty minutes before they realize this isn't the school they heard about in a commercial.

I live in the shadow of Eastern University - even with "Nazarene" in the name, the first part of my conversation with any kids who might be potential ENC students is usually to differentiate it from the local "Eastern" they know. I'd love to be wrong about this re-branding, but even if I am, I still don't know that I could ever call it "Eastern" simply for that reason - people in my area already have a small Christian college called "Eastern" in their minds and it's not the one I want them to attend.

You also have Eastern Connecticut State University - a much larger public school in Willimantic, CT. They've branded themselves "Eastern" for a very long time - in fact the "Connecticut State University" was so small on the billboard I almost couldn't read it as I drove by on Sunday. For kids in the New England area who aren't particularly looking for a faith-based component to their college experience, ECSU is a pretty major rival to ENC for enrollment.

I know Dr. Boone well enough to know he's not just some southern guy coming in without any real connection to ENC and making this decision willy-nilly. Although that was the general consensus from the alums I spoke with this week. They're happy to have him and Trevecca's generous support to pull ENC out of the water - so much that this name thing seems like a small price to pay (and maybe it is), but it's difficult to swallow.

If it were just about a name, I'd advocate swallowing it. Names are just names - the spirit will live on - but it seems awfully short sighted for a school already struggling with enrollment to brand itself in a way that could be confused with not one, but two rivals for various constituencies its trying to recruit. I know Dr. Boone expressed frustration at falling short of enrollment goals this year - I share that sorrow - but I'm not sure this particular move is helping any.

The easy call might be to just brand the place as "ENC" - stop saying the name in its entirety. "ENC" can be the passionate, innovative, Christian college option for New England just fine without a focus on what those letter stand for. I mean, it's likely very few of the current students at ENC even know that KFC stands for - it's a bit trite, but there's a business that found parts of its name problematic for sales and went in a different direction. They seem to be doing ok. ENC is what we call it. It's what people know - not to mention it is distinctive and a great way to solve the branding problems while also investing in the history of the school.

Listen, I'm going to be supportive either way. Dr. Boone asked people to give - give more and give more often - this year and we've done it. We'll continue to do it because we believe in the importance of Christian higher education and my experience at ENC, but I'd also like to give ENC the best chance to still exist in the future and while I see how the re-branding will be part of it, I just fail to see how "Eastern" will do anything but hurt.

I got so frustrated by the logic Friday morning, in yet another discussion, that I said, "I wish they'd just start calling it Trevecca already - it would be better than Eastern." Then it hit me - maybe this is all an elaborate ploy. Perhaps we're being asked to call ENC "Eastern" against all logic and common sense (not to mention tradition) so that, in a few years, when it's known as Trevecca East or TNU-Boston or whatever the merged campus will be, we won't feel so bad about losing our name since whatever it turns out to be will be an improvement on "Eastern."

(For the record, I'm not opposed to any of those names or changing to them now - it's the campus and the culture I hope to preserve and changing the name won't harm that - we should just pick a better name, one that's distinctive and not already taken - TWICE!)

This isn't the most important thing in the world. It's probably peripheral to all the other things that have to go on at ENC. But it's not unimportant and while there's been plenty of persuasive communication about why re-branding makes sense, there's been very little communication about why re-branding to a name that can only be confusing to almost everyone is the right choice. It would be good to know why "Eastern" as opposed to "ENC" or even "Trevecca" or some new name that's been focused-grouped like crazy - any of those seems a better choice.

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