Former Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs used to refer to himself in the third person.

Like, when asked why he wasn’t more productive at the plate, he declared: “If Wade Boggs was hitting behind Wade Boggs, than Wade Boggs would drive in 100 runs.”

Which was helpful information because it identified him as someone with a grandiose sense of self-importance who had given more than passing thought to a world in which he was the only person.

It also tells us something important about the purpose of names.

We don’t need them when we are talking to ourselves. They are the piece of information that we put out into the world to distinguish us from everyone else. Most of the time, the name we were given as babies does the trick, but the probate courts run a steady docket of people who need to change their names for a long list of legitimate reasons, both personal and professional.

It’s not just people. Dunkin’ Donuts is now officially called “Dunkin’ ” because the company wanted people to know they could go there for lunch and dinner, not just doughnuts. Nabisco rechristened its cheese-in-a-can product “Easy Cheez” after it found that many people had a negative association with its original name, “Cheez Whiz.”

You don’t always get a name right on the first try. This will be good to remember as the Legislature picks up the debate over whether the University of Southern Maine should be allowed to become the “University of Maine at Portland.”

The case for changing USM’s name is based on some grim math that won’t be news to anyone who’s been paying attention.

Maine is the oldest state in the country, with half the population older than 44, and more than a quarter older than 60. More Mainers die every year than are born and the only reason our population isn’t shrinking is that people move here. Our biggest economic challenge is not cold weather or burdensome taxes. It’s a lack of working-age people who are ready to staff new enterprises or fill jobs that come open as older Mainers retire.

And the university system is the best tool we have to fight those trends. The campuses provide an affordable education to the people who already live here, and they attract motivated people from other places to come to Maine and consider joining our workforce. A big challenge for a place like USM is making sure that people “from away” know it exists.

And that’s where the name comes in. The university commissioned a marketing study to find out how it could better connect with potential students. It found that the name matters.

Two out of three out-of-state prospects said they would be more likely to consider attending USM knowing that it was based in Portland. Critically, four out of five out-of-state guidance counselors, who play a key gatekeeper role in determining where students end up going, say they would be more likely to recommend it to students.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the name would matter so much. Portland is a popular tourist destination for young people. It’s also where many of the state’s jobs are. These are good associations for the university to latch on to, since attracting more out-of-state students is the only way to avoid decline.

That’s why the University of Maine System Board of Trustees is backing the name change. It’s also why CEOs of Maine corporations are enthusiastic about the idea, and why USM student government and the USM Alumni Association Board also approve.

But expect this issue to be politically dicey. Opposition to the name change has formed among some southern Maine lawmakers, who feel that their communities would be slighted if the university branch were named for Portland instead of the region. In their view, their towns would lose something while Portland would gain.

But that’s not how it works. Any out-of-state student who stays in Maine to work and pay taxes is a net contributor to the whole state, not just one municipality.

And, unless you are Wade Boggs, you don’t need your name to talk to yourself. Names are for communicating with the world.

Maine’s universities need to bring in more out-of-state students to offset our shrinking workforce. Pretty good evidence indicates that having the word “Portland” in the university’s name would attract the attention of more students from other states.

Facing these trends, the question for opponents should be: What do you get out of not changing the name?

 

 

 


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