December 17, 2014
Dear Williamson Alumni and Friends,
The Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades has been referred to by many different names over the years: Williamson Trade School, Williamson Free School, Williamson, Williamson School, Willy Tech…. All of these names and several others have been and are being used, creating confusion as to the school’s proper name and what it represents, especially to anyone unfamiliar with Williamson. This uncertainty continues to negatively affect recruitment of applicants and the solicitation of new donors. (This confusion became very clear several years ago when industrialist and philanthropist Henry M. Rowan issued a $5 million matching gift challenge to Williamson, requiring the school to reach out beyond its alumni and friends for support from those who had never heard of Williamson.)
Often, a long explanation is necessary to explain the very name of our school, distracting attention from who we are and our unique mission. What is a “free” school? What are “mechanical” trades? It’s a high “school,” right? The ambiguity of our name causes confusion from the very outset.
Our Admissions Department routinely encounters this issue, as high school guidance counselors and prospective students and their parents mistakenly confuse Williamson with a vo-tech high school or believe that the education offered at Williamson isn’t at the college level. This first impression can be very damaging, as many are under the impression that high-school vocational programs are of poor quality and appropriate only for the most unqualified high school students; consequently, many would-be applicants do not give Williamson a second thought. The school’s current name and its common informal name –Williamson Trade School – do not help to establish who we truly are, a “college of the trades.” Instead, the reference to trade school leaves many people with an image of a poorly run, outdated secondary institution.
As these problems continued to present themselves, the Board of Trustees began to consider modifying the school’s name to one that would better convey what Williamson currently is, and also reflect the school’s unique mission. Toward that end, the Board and Administration hired a public relations firm to conduct a branding study. (Branding is the method by which an institution identifies itself to the public, including its name and visual identification, such as logos and colors.) This three-month study included many extensive interviews with alumni, faculty, students, friends, major donors, and corporate representatives. The conclusion of the study was that our current name creates confusion and uncertainty, the name is antiquated and not fully representational of what the school is today, the school’s visual identification is confusing and inconsistent, and there is no consistent brand identity.
Although many variations of the name were considered, the study concluded that the name “Williamson College of the Trades” would most clearly identify the true nature of the school’s programs and curriculum to those outside the Williamson community while portraying our mission and maintaining a close connection with our past.
In addition, the study concluded that the new name would: attract a greater pool of applicants (allowing more students to get their first choice of a trade, which would positively affect student retention); help in fund-raising efforts (corporations and foundations are more inclined to give to a college than a trade school); assist Williamson to obtain articulation agreements with other colleges (making it easier for graduates to continue their education); and more clearly identify what Williamson is all about — it is a postsecondary educational institution committed to providing a hands-on trade education, awarding the Associate in Specialized Technology degree since 1972.
After careful consideration, the Board of Trustees gave near unanimous approval to the proposed name change. The Board views this change as better communicating who we are as an institution, but also as a tremendous opportunity to strengthen Williamson’s mission by increasing the value of a Williamson education through raising its accreditation status, thereby providing additional opportunities for our graduates who choose to further their education after Williamson.
And this will all be done while remaining true to Mr. Williamson’s vision for his school as laid out in his Deed of Trust. In its over 125-year history, Williamson has transformed the lives of thousands of “deserving young men,” helping them become “useful and respected members of society,” by remaining faithful to Isaiah V. Williamson’s vision. The school’s dedication to Mr. Williamson’s Deed of Trust will not waver: it will continue to offer tuition-free trade and academic education in a faith and values-based environment that includes the promotion of athletics and other activities that are conducive to fellowship and the development of leadership skills. These four elements are the foundation of the Williamson experience and always will be, regardless of the school’s name.
Moreover, the Board views the name change as yet another step in the natural progression that the school has made over the years. From the very first Board to the present, the Trustees have been given authority by Mr. Williamson in the Deed of Trust to make changes over time in order to keep the school relevant. Mr. Williamson was wise to realize that changes would be necessary over time to enable his school to adapt and progress, and he allowed for the Board to make those changes, provided that the school remained faithful to his vision. Since the school’s inception, recognizing that Williamson must adapt to changes in education, technology, and the marketplace or risk becoming obsolete, the Board has made numerous amendments to the Deed of Trust, while always being guided by Mr. Williamson’s original vision.
In the early part of the 20th century, Williamson’s agriculture program of study was phased out. Another of the early trades, pattern making, was dropped in the late 1930s as the skills it required were replaced by modern technology. That trade was replaced with a painting program, which decades later itself adapted to technological advances to include structural coatings technology. The horticulture program was added as a sixth trade in the 1990s.
The Board initiated a more fundamental change in 1961. Up until that time, students were of high school age and the curriculum was more in keeping with secondary education. Recognizing the rise of collegiate education and the significant advances in technology during the 20th century, the Board decided to convert Williamson into a postsecondary school. Programs were upgraded and in 1972 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted the school the authority to award the Associate in Specialized Technology degree while maintaining the Craftsman Diploma option. Mr. Williamson did not envision his school offering associate degrees in 1888, but the Board saw that such a change was imperative in producing graduates who were more competitive in pursuing employment. They made this important change in good faith and with a commitment to modify the school’s program in accord with what they believed Mr. Williamson would have wanted.
For over 40 years now, Williamson has provided a collegiate, trade-focused education and awarded an associate’s degree, but has continued to refer to itself as a “school.” This despite the fact that “school” usually refers to elementary or secondary education, while “college” is usually associated with postsecondary institutions. The current name of the institution clearly represents Williamson’s original role as a secondary school; today, the name is misleading as it no longer represents Williamson’s current role as a trade college.
Upon realizing the importance of changing Williamson’s name, several years ago the Board initiated the name-change process with Pennsylvania’s Department of Education. It quickly discovered that changing the name would require the school to incorporate and pay a real estate transfer tax on all of the school’s land and buildings. Williamson simply could not afford to pay such a tax and the drive to change the name was delayed until a way could be found to overcome this obstacle.
In 2013, Governor Thomas Corbett was introduced to Williamson. Prior to delivering the keynote address at Commencement last year the Governor and his staff were given an extensive tour of the campus, spoke to President Gardner, staff, instructors, and students, and went back to Harrisburg impressed with what they had experienced at Williamson. The Governor offered to help, proposed that the name change could be accomplished through legislation, and suggested that we work with our local state legislators to do just that. Williamson was excited to find that our local legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and Representative Thomas Killion, were eager to help Williamson find a way to be able to use the word “College” in its official name.
Last February, the government in Harrisburg began working on legislation that would allow this to happen. By March, Senate Bill 1205 had been introduced into the legislature covering changes that would benefit several institutions of higher education, including Williamson. Without mentioning Williamson by name, a part of the legislation would allow an accredited school that awarded the Associate in Specialized Technology degree the right to use the word “College” in its name. This meant that Williamson could call itself a College and would not have to incorporate or pay an incorporation tax to do so. The legislation passed and was signed by Gov. Corbett on June 18, 2014. As a result, Williamson now has the legal authority to use “College” as part of its title.
Williamson will soon begin using its new name. It is our hope that this year’s senior class will be the last to graduate from The Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades, and that next August’s incoming freshmen will be the first class to enter Williamson College of the Trades. The Board has further committed to pursue the goal of offering AAS degrees (Associate of Applied Sciences) rather than the current AST degrees (which are terminal degrees and not intended to be built upon for anyone pursuing further education), while also pursuing a shift in accreditation to the widely respected and accepted Middle States accrediting body. This goal when achieved would allow Williamson credits to be more easily transferrable to other degree-granting institutions of higher education throughout the United States; Williamson graduates will more easily be able to build upon their associates degree to obtain the bachelor’s and master’s degrees that will make them more competitive and assist them as future leaders in their career fields.
The Board believes that the name change is a critically important step for Williamson’s future. It ranks with equally important steps taken in the past to eliminate federal support, to offer associate degrees (AST), and accept only high school graduates as applicants. And this step is being taken at exactly the right time. The new name for our old Williamson is a timely, bold, and important step.
Any time the Board considers making a change of this magnitude, it asks two questions. First, “Will this action further the mission and original goal of Williamson of ‘preparing deserving young men to be useful and respected members of society?’ ” Second and more important is, “Would Mr. Williamson approve of this action if he were here today?” After many years of reflection and study of this issue, the Board and administration believe very strongly that the answer to both questions is a resounding yes!
The world has changed in the last 125 years and during that time Williamson has made changes to remain relevant in the world of trade education and character development. And Williamson continues to make necessary changes, both with the name and the goal to raise our degree and accreditation that will have far reaching benefits for the school, its students, and its graduates. The Board and Williamson’s administration are continuing the work started by Isaiah V. Williamson all those years ago. He is not here to run his school, but we have no doubt that he would approve of this important change.
Wayne C. Watson 4W8, Board Chairman
William J. Bonenberger 7W9, Board Vice Chairman
Michael J. Rounds, President
Robert J. Abbot 8W1, Alumni Association President