Henry Petroski: How the Rolla campus became Missouri S&T

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On June 15, 2023

The following article by Henry Petroski was published in the October 2011 issue of ASEE Prism magazine.

REFRACTIONS: Renaming Institutions

How the Rolla campus became Missouri S&T.

In 1821, an act of Congress fulfilled a wish of the nation’s first president by creating The George Washington University. In 1853, private citizens concerned over the lack of institutions of higher learning in the Midwest spearheaded the founding of The Washington University. In 1861, the University of Washington was established as the West Coast’s first public university. A century later, these similarly named schools were liable to be confused with one another. This led, in 1976, to one of them being renamed Washington University in St. Louis.

Other institutions have faced similar situations. It was also in Missouri that the first university west of the Mississippi had been established, in Columbia in 1839. The Morrill Act of 1862 led to the founding in 1870 of the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy, a land-grant offshoot of the state’s university and the first technical institute in the western part of the country.

The independent campus at Rolla came to be known familiarly in the progressively shortened forms of Missouri School of Mines, Missouri Mines, and even just Mines or Rolla. Those latter variations on a name were very distinctive and effective for the state and the region, and the school thrived under them for almost a century. My father-in-law, whose family owned coal mines in southern Illinois, graduated in 1933 from Rolla, as he proudly called his alma mater.

However, in 1963, with the creation of the Missouri state university system, which incorporated the formerly private University of Kansas City and the newly formed St. Louis campus, its four components were uniformly named University of Missouri, separated by a mere hyphen preceding the location of the campus. Thus Mines became the University of Missouri-Rolla. Whereas old-timers continued to refer to the school as Rolla, formally it had lost its distinctive name and had to share a primary brand name with the larger and more visible Columbia campus, known nationally as Mizzou, thanks in no small part to its competitive sports teams.

After decades of living with its diminished brand, and with growing awareness of changing demographics in its region and the perception that there was a diminishing student interest in engineering and science, Rolla was concerned about its future. In order to gain greater visibility and to cast a wider net for students, the institution set out to rename and thus rebrand itself as a leader with which to be reckoned in the fields of engineering and science education and research.

This was no easy task, for the obvious choice of Missouri Institute of Technology would naturally have led to the abbreviation MIT, which was already taken. After much consultation, deliberation, and persuasion, and spearheaded by Rolla’s Chancellor John F. Carney III, the distinctive new name of Missouri University of Science and Technology was settled upon, and everyone on campus was cautioned against using such shortened forms as Missouri University or the awkward MUST. Rather, they were advised to use only Missouri S&T or just S&T. Among the goals was to make S&T as much associated with Missouri S&T as A&M is with Texas A&M.

There was naturally opposition from some faculty, alumni, and current students, but this softened as a very disciplined and thoughtful campaign soon made Missouri S&T as distinctive internationally as Rolla had been regionally. Close attention to details helped. The university’s logo, for example, cleverly incorporated the pickax carried by the school’s mascot, Joe Miner, into the stylized ampersand between the S and T, thus connecting a fresh look with a rich tradition. Changing the name of an institution is never easy, but Missouri S&T has provided a model for how to do it successfully.

Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, gave the commencement address at and received an honorary degree from Missouri S&T last May. His new book, An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession, will be published this fall by Cambridge University Press.

The above article by Henry Petroski above was published in the October 2011 issue of ASEE Prism magazine

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One thought on “Henry Petroski: How the Rolla campus became Missouri S&T”

  • Jim Rau says:

    Admittedly, I am one of the resistors to the name change (which I shutter to utter), and will forever refer to my alma mater as UMR–THE University of Missouri at Rolla. While I am an “old guy,” it has been disappointing to see that vestiges such as what was KUMR had their call letters wiped clean, and replaced by the initials of the rebranded institution. Institutions now bearing the names like Wichita State University and Montana State University-Billings (formerly Municipal University of Wichita and Eastern Montana College) retained their public radio call letters from their prior names—KMUW & KEMC, respectively. There may have been legitimate reasons for losing the KUMR name, besides the school name change, and if so, I will stand corrected. Thanks in part to Dr. Larry Christensen’s class at UMR, I developed a respect for history, so when I see a nod being given to past names, traditions, etc. in what things were once called and part of an institution’s history, I get a bit of smile. But the kicker on the name change came with my employer, for 30 years, showed my degree as coming from UMR (as does my diploma) decided to list my educational background with the freshly-minted name.

    But times change. I suspect the OG Miners grumbled like I do when they changed the name from MSM to UMR in the 60s, and I just never heard folks comment on it in the ’70s when I attended. Fortunately things have gotten better diversity-wise at Rolla, as I often referred to our hallowed school as “Missouri School for Boys” based on female/male ratios at the time.

    Call it what you want, all that needs to be said in engineering circles is to say you are a Rolla grad and that says it all.