What’s in a Name? The Renaming and Rebranding of Geography Departments

Winkler_JulieIn a recent issue of the Observer magazine, author Eric Jaffe explored the nature and rationale of recent changes in the names of prominent U.S. psychology departments. Jaffe interviewed faculty and administrators from several universities that had changed the departmental name from Psychology to alternative nomenclatures including Psychological SciencesPsychological and Brain SciencesPsychology and Neuroscience, and Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences. Some of these name changes reflect the merger of two or more departments, but others were an attempt to rebrand a department and, more generally, the discipline of psychology. For some, the rationale was to portray psychology “as a science, not an art,” whereas for others the motivation was to draw attention to new focus areas and approaches within psychological research.

Does this sound familiar? It sure does to me. A cursory comparison of current geography department listings to those of previous years suggests a recent uptick in the number of departments that have undergone name changes. Some of the more recent renamings share similarities with the name changes seen for psychology, such as Geographical Sciences, Geography and Environmental Sustainability, and Geography, Environment and Society. Also, similar to psychology, some of the name changes were mandated by departmental mergers, but others are a rebranding, intended to portray a geography department in a different light, emphasize new disciplinary developments, convey modernity and relevance, capture new audiences, and/or become more broadly appealing to graduate and undergraduate students (and their parents).

Given the broader implications of these changes for the discipline of geography, the AAG Council chose to use the “challenge question” portion of their meeting earlier this month for an open-ended discussion of the long-term benefits and consequences of renaming and rebranding geography departments. The discussion was insightful and fascinating, and the experiences of the Council members varied widely. This column conveys my impressions of that discussion with the goal to initiate broader dialog and information sharing. One message that I took away from the Council discussion is that, although the contextual and political settings in which these decisions are being made varies markedly from one university to the next, there are sufficiently common circumstances that a greater sharing of experiences would benefit those geography departments considering renaming and rebranding.

A common theme from the discussion was that the decision to rename a department cannot be taken lightly, and the motivations for such a change need to carefully examined and thoroughly debated. Many of us may be reluctant to consider a departmental name change, in part because of what one Council member referred to as the “heart tug” of the name Geography. But, depending on the context, there can be compelling reasons for renaming and/or rebranding, and for some departments, especially those involved in a merger, renaming is inevitable. It is critical that departments ask: “Who are the audiences for the renaming/rebranding?” and “Is renaming/rebranding the most effective means for reaching those audiences?” For some departments, other approaches may be as effective, or at least merit consideration. These might include additional undergraduate degree options, greater external publicity of geography as a discipline and internal publicity of the skills and accomplishments of geography faculty, and additional resources or a reallocation of current resources to ensure that geography faculty are as productive and as highly regarded as faculty from other departments. But for other departments, these measures may not be sufficient or some may not be possible within the university structure, and renaming and rebranding may help ensure that these departments are able to “survive and thrive.”

Timeliness can be important. A repeated message in the marketing literature on renaming and rebranding companies is “don’t procrastinate.” Along those lines, one councillor observed that name changes that originate organically from within a department are likely to be more creative and effective than those that are imposed from higher administration. Consequently, it can be to a department’s advantage to take the initiative on making the difficult decision of whether to rename and/or rebrand. Also, geography is not the only discipline currently undergoing departmental name changes, but rather this is occurring across academia. Consequently, there likely will be competition with other departments on campus for ownership of relevant descriptors (e.g., environment, sustainability, global, geospatial) and/or areas in which geography departments would like to expand. Thus, it behooves us to carefully monitor higher administration’s assessment and expectations of our departments along with developments in other departments, so that we can be proactive rather than reactive. Student input can also be extremely helpful when considering a name change.

A name is more than the sum of its parts and needs to be selected carefully, particularly as it can benefit or disadvantage some subgroups. Often departments, especially merged departments composed of several disciplines, seek integrative names such as Geosciences or Environmental Sciences. However, these particular examples of departmental names can disadvantage the humanities and social science components of geography, such as critical human geography, especially if university administrators and others on campus perceive the department as focusing primarily on the physical environment rather than also on the built environment or the social and political environment. One departmental chair shared with their regional councillor that an interpretation of “environment” as only the physical environment can skew the local perception of geography with potentially negative consequences on hiring and teaching decisions. Similarly, a departmental name such as Global Studies, or even Environmental Studies, can disadvantage physical geography, particularly if the term “studies” is construed as less scientific than the use of the term “sciences.” Keeping “geography” as part of the departmental name can have a number of advantages, as it portrays a more holistic view of geography. It also provides an obvious linkage to the department’s past and to its alumni, and is respectful to those who helped to pioneer the department. Explicitly including “geography” in the departmental name can also provide long-term stability, as geography is an evolving discipline and the other components of the department’s name may change with time as new subfields and interests develop.

Some councillors raised the concern that the renaming and rebranding of departments has the potential to dilute geography’s identity. For example, renaming a department is often accompanied by new or modified degree offerings, and one concern is whether majors will migrate from geography to the other degree options and how resources will be allocated among the different degrees. Also, capturing and communicating geography’s strengths in GIScience can be particularly challenging for geography departments, especially if other departments on campus add terms such as “geospatial” to their names. While geography departments need to strive to be the primary on-campus source of GIScience education and research, they need to be cognizant that students also come to geography for other reasons and that a narrow focus on GIScience can de-emphasize geography as a discipline.

I admit to a particular fascination with this topic of renaming and rebranding geography departments. The position to which I was hired was offered by higher administration as a “carrot” to the geography department to agree to a merger with two other departments, and the heated debates in those early faculty meetings on the name of the merged department are etched into my memory. My impression is that the discipline is now more accepting of renaming and rebranding than in the early days of my career. But at the same time, we need to focus on how to use renaming and rebranding to our advantage, while minimizing potential negatives. Thus, we need to share experiences. We also need to be critical and closely monitor the long-term impacts of departmental name changes on the discipline. And let’s not forget that renaming/rebranding is not a substitute for high quality, high impact geographic teaching and research that makes a difference to students and stakeholders.

My thanks to the members of the AAG Council for the very thought-provoking conversation. I hope that I accurately conveyed their thoughts and remarks in stimulating further discussion of this issue.

Julie Winkler

[The reference to Eric Jaffe’s article is “Identity Shift”, Observer, Association for Psychological Science, 2011, available at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2011/september-11/identity-shift.html.]

DOI: 10.14433/2014.0006