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I live in South Dakota. We have both The University of South Dakota, and South Dakota State University. They are both large public institutions. Each is known for a specialty (USD is business, law, and medicine; SDSU is agriculture, science, and engineering), and one (SDSU) is a fair bit larger than the other. However, they're more or less the same.

Why the different naming, and does the name format carry any meaning?

My immediate impression is that we had two different institutions, and they simply needed different names. But is there some larger, systemic reason for the different in naming? Does the format of the name imply anything, in general?

(Note: I'm using South Dakota as an example here. The same naming convention is true of most every state in the US.)

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    A famous related case was in the UK when a university spent on a lot of money to discover the 'best-sounding' new name for their institution. Eventually, 'X University' and '[the] University of X' (X a city) were put forward (X a city, and one of the proposals being the existing name). Some names sound reasonable, others don't, and it's first-come-first-served when new institutions want a good title. // FWIW, seasonal greetings from the University of Oxford read 'Season's Greetings from Oxford University'. Dec 23, 2021 at 14:11
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    I thought I'd already answered this question. No, it's not a semantic reason. It's a historical reason. And every state is different as far as education goes. Dec 23, 2021 at 16:03
  • There is academia.stackexchange.com but I'm not sure if this is their kind of question.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 23, 2021 at 17:24
  • This is not opinion-based. It’s a duplicate; John Lawler has answered it, as he notes in his comment. I will vote to reopen to fix this.
    – Xanne
    Dec 23, 2021 at 22:43
  • While Professor Lawler's answer to the linked question indeed includes the remarks that amount to an answer to this one, the question itself is different, and this one is not its duplicate. This question is explicitly about the difference between the two kinds of names; the older one is about the precise implications of the word state in the names in which it does occur, and does not at all mention the names of the University of form.
    – jsw29
    Jan 3 at 22:39

4 Answers 4

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State Universities are land grant schools, and generally they're ag schools as a result. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land-grant_university

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  • While many state (lowercase s) universities in the U.S. are 'land-grant schools', there are among them both those whose names follow the University of format and those whose names follow the State University format. The land-grant status of a university is not correlated with the presence of the word state in its name.
    – jsw29
    Jan 4 at 23:59
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One exception to the predominant US preference for "University of [State Name]" for the most prestigious public university in a state is Indiana University (not "the University of Indiana"). It isn't clear why the state of Indiana chose this wording for its flagship public university, but the name goes back more than 180 years. From Theophilus Wylie, Indiana, University, Its History from 1820, when Founded, to 1890 (1890):

As soon as the four years prescribed by the Constitution of 1816 had expired, the Legislature of the young State made haste to comply with its requirements, and a "State Seminary" was founded, which, through the "Indiana College," ultimately became the "Indiana University."

...

We have now [in 1838] reached a point of import to the institution, for the "Indiana College" was converted into "The Indiana University" by "an act to establish a university in the State of Indiana," approved February 15, 1838 (Local Laws, 1838, p. 294), and a new era in its history was entered upon. The act is as follows:

"Section 1. Be if enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Indiana, That there shall be, and hereby is created and established a University adjacent to the town of Bloomington, in the county of Monroe, for the education of youth in the American, learned and foreign languages, the useful arts, sciences (including law and medicine) and literature, to be known by the name and style of the Indiana University, and to be governed and directed as hereinafter directed.

Notwithstanding the formal designation of "the Indiana University" as the university's name, the form "University of Indiana" appears nine times in the course of Wylie's 1890 history. Those occurrences suggest a limited degree of informal interchangeability of the wordings at that date. They may also indicate that, even in Indiana, people sometimes slipped into use of the normal US preference for the form "University of [State Name]," despite official endorsement of the exceptional form "[State Name] University."


One indication of the "prestige" element of the wording "University of [State Name]" is evident in the resistance of certain state universities to application of the "University of [State Name]" designation to another university in the same state. The most extreme example of this that I'm aware of involves Texas A&M University, where many students insist on referring to the University of Texas (at Austin) as "Texas University"; the wording even appears—in lowercase letters—in the official Texas A&M "war hymn" ((what at other schools would be called a "fight song"), which dates to 1918:

Good-bye to texas university / So long to the orange and the white / Good luck to dear old Texas Aggies / They are the boys that show the real old fight / “The eyes of Texas are upon you ...” / That is the song they sing so well / So good-bye to texas university / We’re going to beat you all to Chig-gar-roo-gar-rem / Chig-gar-roo-gar-rem / Rough Tough! Real Stuff! Texas A&M!

On the other hand, for decades some boosters of the University of Texas have adopted the practice of shortening the wording of the orange decals that they put on the rear window of their car from "THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS" to "THE UNIVERSITY," as if to say that it is the only university in the state worthy of the name. And one clever person took this presumptuous attitude to an amusingly extreme degree by dropping the "ITY" and adding the "E" from "TEXAS" so that the decal read simply "THE UNIVERSE."

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  • Indiana, in addition to its Indiana University, has Indiana State University. It is an exception in so far as it does not use the University of ___ format, but it still fits the general U.S. pattern by not incorporating the word state into the name of the more prestigious of its two institutions.
    – jsw29
    Jan 3 at 22:27
  • @jsw29: Right. The state is home to eight branches of "Indiana University"–in Bloomington, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, and elsewhere—but also to two public universities with "State" in their name: Ball State University in Muncie and Indiana State University in Terre Haute. Interestingly, the state also has one public university—not the most prestigious—that uses the wording "University of": the University of Southern Indiana (in Evansville). Wiikpedia has a full list of Indiana colleges and universities here. ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 3 at 23:20
  • ... I pointed out Indiana University as an exception to the prevailing rule that the most prestigious university in a state is called "the University of State Name" rather than "State Name University" because I thought it was worth noting that the rule is not unanimously followed—not because I had any doubt that it is the predominant form. I will remove this answer if site participants, on balance, consider it worthless or harmful.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 3 at 23:21
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As far as I know, they mean the same, no difference in meaning at all. When I was at UMass, however, I learned some people were misled to believe there was a difference, in that "Universities of X" were top-tier institutions.

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When a state in the United States has two separate systems of public universities, the name University of ___ is carried by the one that is meant to be the more prestigious one (the one that has more demanding admission requirements, more graduate programs, and where more notable research is carried out), while the name X State University is given to the one that is primarily intended to provide undergraduate education to all reasonably qualified state's residents. In fact, the institutions that now have their names in the latter format, were in the past called colleges (in the U.S. sense of that word, which implies the absence of significant graduate programs).

This distinction is, of course, not very precise, and does not always hold in practice (one can find excellent universities with State University names, and not very remarkable ones with the University of names), but it does influence how somebody who just hears the name of a university, and does not know anything else about it, will perceive it (assuming that the person is familiar with the U.S. higher education).

It should be noted that this is, strictly speaking, not a matter of English language as such, but of the traditions of the higher education in the U.S. So far as the language, considered in the abstract, is concerned, the difference between the two kind of names could have been used for some entirely different purpose, or they could have been treated as interchangeable.

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