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For Universities, What's in a Name?

  • Ted Landphair

Monroe Hall, which houses several of the University of Mary Washington’s humanities programs, was the first permanent campus building. It was constructed in 1911, when the institution was a small teachers’ college for women. (Wikipedia Commons)

Monroe Hall, which houses several of the University of Mary Washington’s humanities programs, was the first permanent campus building. It was constructed in 1911, when the institution was a small teachers’ college for women. (Wikipedia Commons)

Nine four-year colleges or universities in the United States carry the name “Washington.” Eight are named after George Washington, the nation’s first president. The ninth carries the name of his mother, Mary, and at last it seems to have recovered from a bit of an identity crisis.

Seventy-four years ago, Virginia’s state teachers’ college - then a part of the big University of Virginia and strictly for women - changed its name to “Mary Washington College.”

As a widow, Mary managed the Virginia estate on which her eldest son, George, and his five siblings grew up.

“Everything I am,” George Washington later wrote, “I owe to my mother.”

The institution - located in Fredericksburg, midway between Washington, D.C., and Virginia’s capital city of Richmond - is no longer a teachers’ school nor a college. It’s a full-fledged, public, liberal-arts university with about 4,500 undergraduates and 850 graduate students.
Portrait of Mary Ball Washington, President George Washington’s mother, by Robert Edge Pine. (Wikipedia Commons)

Portrait of Mary Ball Washington, President George Washington’s mother, by Robert Edge Pine. (Wikipedia Commons)


Men make up one-third of the student body.

In fact, its graduate school, closer to Washington, is named for a man - James Monroe, the nation’s fifth president.

In 1986, the school’s then-president, William Anderson, sparked an outcry - a rebellion, actually - when he attempted to change its name. He suggested “Washington and Monroe University,” eliminating “Mary.”

He said “Mary Washington” conveyed an image of a private, all-women’s college, to which guys wouldn’t want to come.

The men’s basketball coach - yes, there were, and still are, men’s sports teams at the coed university - sided with the president.

“The name is a huge hindrance to recruiting,” Ron Woods said at the time. “I mean, a guy has to tell his friends, ‘It’s not a girls’ school.’”

But those who liked “Mary Washington University” just fine, including both men and women in T-shirts reading “Save the Name” who rallied on campus, prevailed. They pointed out that women don’t seem to have a problem attending hundreds of universities named for men.

So the “University of Mary Washington” it became and remains. Apparently Ron Wood is at peace with that. He’s still the men’s basketball coach, and the team has done quite well. It won 18 games this past season and lost only 9.
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