The power of a name

The debate over how to name the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign was long, contentious, and went to the soul of campus
Overhead photo of UIUC campus
Aerial view of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, looking north. (U of I Public Affairs: Seay-Knoblauch.)

The University of Illinois is currently updating and evaluating its brand identity standards—the colors, logos, words, and other ways that the university presents itself. It’s a necessary process to stay in step with evolving times, and never was the subject more contentious than in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when campus debated the most prominent identifier of all: the university name itself.

The University of Illinois was founded in 1867 as Illinois Industrial University, in line with other land grant universities formed by the 1862 Morrill Act. Over the next few years, however, dissatisfaction arose over the word “industrial,” as the term suggested a trade-oriented education, or a reformatory or charitable institution in which compulsory manual labor figured prominently, according to late campus historian Winton Solberg.

Students in 1881 voted 250-20 to switch the name to the University of Illinois. A column in the Feb. 2, 1881, Daily Illini, by W.A. Mansfield, who went on to earn a degree in literature and arts (a predecessor to the liberal arts and sciences), said that “industrial” was misleading, with the school regularly receiving applications from people looking for homes for at-risk youth. It cited one such application to the regent’s office that read, in part, “I have two boys, nine and eleven years old, and four girls from two to nine years old. Buried my wife on the 1st of May, last. Health is poor. I have no means of support for them, and I want to get them where they will be cared for together.”

Memorial Stadium and Old University Building
On left: Memorial Stadium and the Armory, 1941; on right, Old University Building, 1870s. (University of Illinois Archives.)

Wrote Mansfield: “I often wonder why the school was not christened as an orphans home in the first place. This is the Industrial University, but it is not an industrial school.”

Thus the university name was changed to the University of Illinois in 1885, but the controversies over the name had only just begun. As more departments and programs emerged, campus began generating more print materials and correspondence than ever before. Urbana was most often listed as the university’s official location, but over time the Champaign Chamber of Commerce and other citizens of Champaign grew more insistent that their city should be included in the official campus address. Their opponents, meanwhile, argued for the address to remain Urbana as most campus buildings were located within Urbana city limits.

According to a research project by the University of Illinois Archives, the issue finally came before the Board of Trustees and President Edmund James in 1906. Notes from that meeting aren’t available, but attendees apparently struck a compromise as official correspondence from the president’s office and trustees reports soon bore the name of both cities. By 1916, “Urbana-Champaign” had become a common way to distinguish the flagship campus from the university’s medical campus in Chicago.

Law Building (now Harker Hall), University Hall (no longer), and Library Building (now Altgeld Hall)
As seen from the Natural History Building in 1910, the three towers from left to right are the Law Building (now Harker Hall), University Hall (no longer), and Library Building (now Altgeld Hall). (University of Illinois Archives.) 

The use of Urbana-Champaign, however, was not formalized for decades. Many official documents from campus, including from units such as the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, listed only Urbana as the location for the University of Illinois through at least the 1950s. To complicate matters, campus references—official and unofficial—occasionally listed the location as “Champaign-Urbana” instead of “Urbana-Champaign.” For example, the location of the University of Illinois Foundation, formed in 1935, was listed as the “University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Ill.,” in its constitution. The trust agreement and lease for the Illini Union Building read that the agreement was created “to provide the Illini Union Building for the students of the University on the Champaign-Urbana campus,” according to the archives, and, during the construction of Willard Airport in the 1940s, the Trustees referred to “the University of Illinois Airport at Champaign-Urbana.”

Student references to campus often (not surprisingly) deviated from the official line. Through at least the 1930s, students broadcasting on WILL, the campus radio station, reported their location as the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. The still-lingering campus nickname “Shampoo-Banana,” appearing as early as the 1970s and perhaps sooner than that, spun off the practice of listing Champaign before Urbana. And the debate over which city comes first in the name never really died. As one Reddit post from 2016 read, “It’s Champaign-Urbana to locals.” Retorted another, “Urbana and West Urbana.”

University growth solidified adoption of Urbana-Champaign as the official designation, however. As the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus grew in the 1960s, its official name became the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. This created more need to distinguish the Urbana-Champaign campus from its northern partner, and in most cases the official name for the flagship campus was listed as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the 1990s, when the University of Illinois System grew to include Sangamon State University (which was renamed University of Illinois at Springfield), the acronyms UIC, UIUC, and UIS grew even more common.

Campus acronyms weren’t even a consideration by W.A. Mansfield, who wrote that influential column in 1881 as one of his last acts as a student before graduation (he went on to become a doctor). His column still resonates today, however. Dropping the original name for the University of Illinois was more than just alleviating confusion; despite overwhelming student support for a new name, there were many in the state who believed that, true to the word “industrial,” campus should be narrowly focused on the trades. They threatened to withhold their support from the university if it deviated from that role.

The name “University of Illinois” needed a strong defense, and Mansfield—among others—gave it one.

“The work of the university, open to all who are far enough advanced to undertake it, in agriculture, architecture, mechanics, engineering, chemistry, in literature and in science, shows far more plainly than words can show that there is no class distinction here,” Mansfield wrote. “The language of the grant... says, ‘The leading object of such schools shall be to promote the liberal and practical education of industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.’ This is the best statement of the aim of the University today. Its work is what all classes of our people might wish it to be.”

Editor's note: This story first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of LAS News magazine.

News Source

Dave Evensen and Kimberly Belser