What’s In A Name?

Showing visitors around the University of Auckland can be a quick lesson in our colonial history. The University is named for the city, which is named for a spectacularly unsuccessful Governor-General of India. Our oldest streets are centred on Queen Street — which is crossed by Victoria Street: the settlers took a belt and braces approach to honouring their young monarch when the city was laid out in 1841. And my office overlooks Albert Park, named in the 1880s in memory of the Prince Consort at about the time the University itself was founded.

Of all New Zealand’s universities, though, the name of Victoria University of Wellington ties it the most tightly to our colonial past. Their founding coincided with that long-lived monarch’s 60th year on the throne, and the name commemorates the anniversary. Unsurprisingly, a number of outposts of Empire had similar ideas as they built their own replica Englands. Consequently, our “Vic” is one of several dotted round the world and there is very little about the name that says “New Zealand”. So it is not surprising that Victoria’s leadership felt that “University of Wellington” would be a better name and would assist with the near-sacred tasks of international student recruitment and gaining a notch or two in the rankings.

What was possibly more surprising was that those leaders actually initiated the long and laborious process involved with a name change. The arguments in favour are mainly technocratic, but the arguments against have roots in the visceral connections many students and alumni feel for their alma mater, so the latter were advanced with more passion and intensity. And what was truly surprising is that while the University was happy to shoulder aside this opposition from within the community, the Minister overruled the University Council and decreed that Victoria it would stay.


That said, Victoria is not the only oddly named institution of higher learning in New Zealand. To most people, Cornell University is an Ivy League school with all the trimmings: a handful of resident Nobelists, cut-throat competition for admission, a glorious campus, and shops that are entirely devoted to selling clothing, mugs and other paraphenalia adorned with the university name, along with bumper stickers reading “My kid and my money go to Cornell.” But there is also a Cornell in Auckland, the Cornell Institute of Business and Technology.

Our “Cornell” is most definitely not an offshoot of Cornell University, even if its logo does rather remind you of a place whose sports teams are affectionately known as Big Red. And while Cornell University offers advanced degrees in everything from archaeology to zoology, the Auckland Cornell is more practical, with non-degree qualifications in cooking, business administration and computing. There is even short course in Barista Skills. Like the real Cornell, our Cornell does make the news on a regular basis, just not in particularly positive ways. Here’s one on Filipinos angry over an alleged immigration scam, or last year’s coverage of courses with rampant plagiarism and incomprehensible English in student work, and an older tale of students being admitted who couldn’t speak English.

The government doesn’t approve the names of private providers, but it does approve their courses, and it beats me how a place engaging in this sort of blatant misrepresentation gets a license to operate. If the Minister is taking an interest in names, the fake Cornell would be my nomination for the next spot on his to-do list.

Image: The Cornell campus and Lake Cayuga, in Ithaca, New York. Auckland’s “Cornell” is located in a scruffy looking building in the central city – on Hobson Street, named for the young colony’s first governor.