Naming of Universities

And today we have naming of universities…  When I talk about history of universities I pause to explore the difference in naming conventions for universities between different countries.  If you look at the most famous universities in the US, they’re fairly likely to be named after someone.  In the UK they’re mostly named after the town or city they’re in.  How did this difference happen?

The early universities emerged; a guild of either students or teachers or teachers and students together arose.  Charters and agreements were made with the collective, distinguished by the place that they were at.  So, the Chancellor, Masters and scholars of Oxford were recognised as a corporation.  From the outset, the university name was linked with the place.   Later foundations could happen through the emergence model, increasingly through a deliberate act supported by the monarch.  In 1386 Elector Rupert of the Palatine obtained papal permission to found a university;  German universities have a twin tradition, Heidelburg University is also known as the Ruperto Carola University.

Individual acts of philanthropy linked the names of donors explicitly on occasion.  The names of Robert de Sorbonne, John Balliol and Walter de Merton were associated with their colleges, but later colleges founded by kings, queens and bishops – effectively as the state – did not: there are no Stapeldon or Wykeham colleges.  But there was sufficient precedent for the settlers of Massachusetts who named their College after John Harvard who’d given money for their new college. Further colonial era foundations reflected both the names of donors and their locations.

Developments in the 19th century saw both increasing civic and donor-led foundations. Depending on the source of the impetus, naming conventions differed.  Donations of increasing munificence in the US saw the creation of universities such as Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, or Vassar.  In the UK, new foundations were colleges, unable to award degrees, and some carried their donors’ names, such as Owens or Mason.  However, the prestige of Oxford and Cambridge, coupled with the tradition of the Scottish universities, led Joseph Chamberlain to firmly commit to renaming Mason University College as the University of Birmingham.  It so happened that in doing so he erased the name of his former business competitor, Josiah Mason (whose portrait even appeared on the College seal) from the university.  The next wave of UK universities followed suit, so much so that as the 20th century went on, commemorative names were downgraded in favour of city names.

Mason UC

As well as Mason, the following people had UK HE institutions named after them, all of which changed to location-based names.

Queen Victoria

John Anderson

William Armstrong

Joseph Constantine

Mark Firth

Henry Hartley

John Owens

John Rutherford

The UK has, therefore, considerable experience in turning its back on naming universities after people.  There are a fair number remaining, sometimes at a stage removed, which you could describe as a rather mixed group of people.

Ernest Beckett

George Birkbeck

John Brookes

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Samuel Courtauld

St David

Robert Grosstesste

Owain Glyndŵr

St John

George Heriot

Thomas Holloway

Queen Mary

St Mary

St Mark

Simon de Montford

John Moores

John Henry Newman

John Ruskin

James Watt


Thomas Holloway: the UK’s one remaining eponymous major donor

Clearly many of these names are commemorative: neither those biblical figures nor medieval types knew anything of the universities that carry their names. In fact, few of these had a direct involvement with the institutions that bear their names, and only one, Thomas Holloway, among all those who were donors, had the same massive financial influence that either people like the Stanfords or Johns Hopkins did.


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