Seventeen years ago, a university was born with lofty expectations and a puzzling name.
At its inception, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology was billed as the MIT of the North, referring to the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But its name was confusing and its vowel-heavy acronym, UOIT, never seemed to roll off the tongue.
Students and faculty dreaded the questioning looks they would get when they introduced themselves at conferences or encountered relatives who asked where they were studying.
After a year on the job, the university’s new president, Steven Murphy, had heard the name mangled more times than he could count. Meanwhile, market research indicated that the university in Oshawa, Ont., had “virtually zero name recognition” in the surrounding Greater Toronto Area, to say nothing of the rest of Canada.
Universities only rarely change course on something as significant as a name. But Mr. Murphy felt it was time. He sent out a trial balloon on Twitter, asking what people thought of switching to OnTechU. It was widely panned.
“Everyone’s a branding expert,” he said wryly. But the president was planting a seed.
Six months later, the school announced it was rebranding itself as Ontario Tech. The hope is that emulating the naming style of better-known schools such as Texas Tech or Caltech will clarify the university’s image and purpose. MIT, ranked fourth in the Times Higher Education world rankings (Ontario Tech is not in the top 1,000), remains a distant aspiration.
“We’ve always been a tech-focused university,” Mr. Murphy said. “Rather than having people grapple with UOIT, saying 'We come from Ontario Tech’ is a far simpler and more direct message.
“After 17 years, you have to take an honest look in the mirror and say, ‘Where are we really? Will we get to where we need to be by the time we’re 25?’ The answer I came to was no.”
The school has grown steadily from fewer than 2,000 students in 2004 to about 9,000 today. It’s trying to carve a niche in tech with a conscience, in addition to existing strengths in automotive research and nuclear engineering. Mr. Murphy said the old name was not a fatal flaw but it was a stumbling block to growth. He hopes to see enrolment of 12,000 to 15,000 over the next five to eight years.
“The threat was that you remain under the radar,” he said. “Our enrolments are good and growing but they’re nowhere near where I think they should be.”
On a quiet Thursday this month, the Canada geese nearly outnumbered the students on the cozy, verdant campus adjacent to Durham College.
The white glass of the president’s office door still says UOIT, but Ontario Tech is visible on the information screens around campus, which display a video touting the rebrand that plays every few minutes.
Students expressed mixed feelings about the name change.
Michael Marcos, a first-year business student who commutes an hour to campus from his home in Markham, said, “I loved UOIT more. I was used to it. I’ll continue to use UOIT.”
Jessica Nguyen, student-council president, said there was initially a lot of pushback because students were attached to the old name, but change requires an adjustment, she said.
“The new brand is refreshing. It’s short and simple and unique,” she said.
Sarah Abdelmassih a PhD candidate who studies molecular biology, said she’s still catching herself referring to UOIT instead of Ontario Tech, but she welcomes the change.
“As a member of UOIT for the last nine years, I’ve seen the struggle,” she said, laughing at how often she’s been asked where the school is and whether it’s affiliated with the University of Toronto. There was also the unfortunate joke in the UOIT acronym, which many students pronounced as “you owe it.”
The new logo will be the university’s fourth since its inception and the rebranding includes a new colour scheme that is primarily blue and orange.
Richard Seres, the university’s executive director of communications and marketing, said the university’s brand problem, which has bedevilled every president in the school’s history, can be traced to its origins. Back in 2002, the word “university” was tacked on to Ontario Institute of Technology, because it was felt it needed to be clearly labelled a university, lest it be confused for something else. The legislative act that created the university made the UOIT name permanent.