Virginia Tech, by any other name by Sherry Bithell
Welcome to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Or, to most, Virginia Tech. Or, to some, VPI.

Given the array of names by which Virginia Tech is known, it's understandable that people unfamiliar with the university might be confused. Still, says Larry Hincker (architecture '72; M.B.A. '94), associate vice president of university relations, Tech's identity is far more established today than it was 131 years--and four name changes--ago.

It's called what?

In 1869, trustees of Blacksburg's Preston and Olin Institute--a "seminary of learning" for local boys founded as the Olin and Preston Institute in 1851--petitioned the Commonwealth of Virginia for a portion of its 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act funds. After a series of vigorous debates in the Virginia legislature, the state awarded the charter to a "new" school--one that happened to use the same grounds and facilities of the existing Preston and Olin Institute. "Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College," the commonwealth's first land-grant school, opened its doors in 1872.

A scant 24 years later, then-President John McBryde decided the institution had grown so much that it needed a more descriptive name and petitioned the legislature to consider calling the school "Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute." The new name was approved, although it was such a mouthful that many people instead began referring to the college as "Virginia Polytechnic Institute" or simply "VPI."

For the next 48 years--the longest time span during which Virginia Tech has been known by the same name--the college continued to expand under its hefty moniker. In 1943, however, Virginia Gov. Colgate Darden set off a statewide controversy when he proposed consolidating the land-grant school with the State Teachers' College at Radford. When the dust settled in 1944, the Blacksburg campus was re-named Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the teacher's school became "Radford College, Women's Division of VPI."

This state of nomenclature existed for more than a quarter of a century, although, according to the May 15, 1959, issue of the alumni newspaper, The Techgram, changing college names had become a nationwide trend:

There seems to be a rash of name changing among colleges, especially Land-Grant institutions. It probably started with the changing of Pennsylvania State College to Pennsylvania State University. Since Penn State made its change there have been others. The most recent is that of Iowa State. A commission appointed to study the matter has just recommended to the Iowa Legislature that its official name hereinafter be "Iowa State University of Science and Technology." We are convinced that most persons, especially headline writers, will continue to call it "Ames."

The article then speculates about the future of VPI's name:

Changing our legal name to Virginia Technical University might be a solution to the confusion that now exists because "Virginia Tech" is used by some and "VPI" by others. Using both names is so confusing that The 1947 World Almanac, for example, printed our 1946 football results twice: once under "Virginia Tech" and again under "VPI." In the main, "Virginia Tech" is preferred in athletic circles and "VPI" in agricultural matters.

The matter came to a head when the Virginia Higher Education Study Commission issued a report in 1965, which noted that VPI had evolved in everything but name from its original standing as a small "A & M" to a comprehensive, multipurpose university. The commission's recommendation that the school change its name to more accurately reflect its status triggered yet another lengthy and contentious debate on campus and throughout the commonwealth.

"Every possible name change appeared likely to be objectionable to at least one or more important segments of public opinion in the state," noted (the late) Duncan Lyle Kinnear in his history of Virginia Tech, The First 100 Years. "The faculty group, none too familiar with Virginia traditions and background, was disposed to try for the name State University of Virginia.'"

Eventually, wrote Kinnear, "The one name which seemed to emerge with any degree of widespread acceptability appeared to be Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.'" The Virginia state legislature approved the new name, which became effective July 1, 1970. However, Kinnear reported, "Other than an official notice from the president to the faculty informing it of the change in name, a slight modification of the official seal to include the new words in the title and a new letterhead, plus some unofficial experimenting with the letters VPI & SU' for possible monogram combinations, no official action followed the changed designation."

Perhaps, then, the resurrection of the issue during the 1980s was inevitable. Committees were formed in both 1986 and 1989 to consider, once again, a new name. Hincker, a member of the 1989 committee, says that each time there was too much institutional momentum against a change. Instead, administrators turned their attention to the problem of Tech's institutional references and lack of identity standards.

"Identity police" on the job

In lieu of visual standards guidelines, university departments and programs had been creating their own business card and letterhead logos, which yielded a wide range of images representing Virginia Tech. Campus administrators realized that if they were to win the fight for a unified Virginia Tech identity--which commonly included being confused with Virginia Military Institute and Virginia State University--they had to establish a uniform look for the entire institution.

"We're faced with a tongue-twisting name like Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University'; our colors are orange and maroon--colors we chose because no one else wanted them; we've got a turkey as a mascot; and our nickname is the Hokies. No wonder nobody could figure out who we were," Hincker says wryly.

As a first step to simplify matters, a university logo--an image of the War Memorial pylons with "1872," the year of the land-grant university's founding, emblazoned across the bottom--was adopted in 1991. Although there was some discussion of using the more familiar "VT" logo affiliated with the sports teams, Hincker says, "We felt people unfamiliar with the school wouldn't necessarily understand what the letters V' and T' stood for." In addition, some faculty members objected to the idea of being perceived as a technical school.

The university then faced the challenge of administrating usage of the new logo. Hincker established what he jokingly calls "the identity police" --of which he is the self-styled chief--and helped created the Visual Standards Manual (online at http://www.unirel.vt.edu/style/vsm.html). Among other entries, the manual dictates acceptable abbreviations of Virginia Tech's name, usage of the logo, and a much briefer list of business card options.

VT logo The way you should see the logo today.

We're Tech. Virginia Tech.

Although it took several years to implement the unified Virginia Tech identity, "institutional recognition for us today is very strong," Hincker says, pointing out that the university was well served by having its identity in place when the football team began making national headlines a few years ago. "It would have been a lot more confusing for the media to have to figure out who we were if we didn't know."

He admits, however, that he sometimes still sees evidence of the same old confusion, citing an anecdote about a campus visit by James Burke, host of the PBS documentary series "Connections" and author of The Day the Universe Changed.

"I picked [Burke] up from the airport and as we were driving toward Blacksburg, we were chatting away. He asked me about the university, so I did my public relations pitch and told him all about what we were doing, our student body, and so on.

"As we passed a sign for Virginia Tech, he gave a nod of recognition and mentioned that he knew all about Tech because of its connection with the Cyrus McCormick farm, where McCormick had invented the reaper.

"Then he paused and said, Virginia Tech. Is that near you guys?'"

Tech gets no respect...

Given the multi-layered history of the university's name, it's no wonder that its moniker is still mistreated in print and on the Web.

  • Perhaps you've heard of us? Here are some references to Virginia Tech that have appeared in print over the years:

    • Virginia Tech and State University
    • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State College
    • Polytechnic Institute and State University
    • Virginia Institute of Technology
    • Virginia Technological University
    • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State Farm [the editor's personal favorite]
    • One alumna took umbrage to a national magazine's erroneous reference to Virginia Tech and wrote a letter to the editor. The correct name, she said, was "Virginia Polytechnic State Institute and State University."

  • Insult to injury. Not only is it common to see Virginia Tech's name misused in print, but sometimes multiple names for the university appear in the same article. One piece comparing the status of Virginia Tech's ROTCs refers to both "Virginia Polytechnic Institute" and "Virginia Tech University."

  • At least Tech's band knows more than one song. The Virginia Tech and Florida State University football teams played each other during the 1988-91 seasons. During the series, FSU alumnus Burt Reynolds appeared on Coach Bobby Bowden's television show and recalled that Tech's team had been known as "the VPI Gobblers. Now they're the Hokies. That's an improvement?" Reynolds asked. "The same guy who gave them that name must have picked that orange-and-maroon color combination."