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What’s in a Name?

Middlebury College’s ​Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts​ is a hive of artistic

activities. Positioned on the Southernmost side of the campus, the ​Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center

for the Arts​ is home to three of the college’s largest performance venues: Robison Hall, a recital

hall whose large dome adds to the ​Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts​’ distinctive shape;

the Seeler Studio Theatre, a black box space where many faculty-directed shows take place; and

the appropriately-named Dance Theatre. In addition, the ​Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the

Arts​ includes offices for college staff and faculty, multi-purpose classrooms, and the Middlebury

College Museum of Art, a gallery frequented by college students and community members alike.

The ​Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts​ is even active over the summer, hosting a number

of classes for the college’s Summer Language Schools. Ultimately, though, the ​Kevin P.

Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts​ is a space where arts majors find a home. Classes in theater,

music, dance, studio art, and more are mainstays in the ​Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the

Arts,​ and it is not uncommon to see students studying in the grand foyer as they wait for their

classes to start.

As well as all of that, the ​Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts​ is, to put it bluntly, a

mouthful. Using the building’s full name seven times in the last paragraph added 231

unnecessary characters to this essay, increasing its length by three lines. In a culture marked by

efficiency, it is no surprise that college students and staff wished to shorten the name. Finding

common ground, though, has proven to be difficult.


Designed and constructed by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, the building opened in

the Fall of 1992, known simply as the Center for the Arts (Andres). For class registration and

other official purposes, the acronym “CFA” was used, a term that caught on with students and

staff and became the most common way to refer to the building. Unfortunately, the acronym

caused confusion, with some community members believing it to stand for “Center for Fine

Arts”1, 2. In 2007, the Arts Center’s 15th anniversary, the building was renamed the ​Kevin P.

Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts​ in honor of a benefactor. According to the Director of the

Mahaney Center for the Arts, Liza Sacheli, the building’s official acronym changed to “MCA” at

the same time (personal communication, May 14, 2019). “There was no big announcement,”

Sacheli noted; the acronym change was implemented silently for the most part, used for class

registration and official advertisement. Because of this, student and faculty awareness of the

acronym was negligible—now, there were at least three acronyms in the mix (CFA, MCA, and

MCFA, the latter of which was never an official term at all), and countless non-acronym

variations.

Because of this confusion, college administrators, the Office of Communications and

Marketing, the Office of Advancement, and Arts Center staff considered another name change

(Kapp, 2019). Originally intending the new acronym to be announced during the building’s 25th

anniversary in 2017-18, the decision was pushed back until the 2018-19 season (Sacheli). “We

didn’t change the name of the building at all…. What we changed is, instead of saying it’s the

Mahaney Center for the Arts, we changed it to Mahaney Arts Center. So we got rid of the two

1
This is an easy mistake to make; acronyms rarely include prepositions and articles (like “to,” “for,” and “the”), and
CFA is inconsistent in that it includes one—“for”—while omitting the other—“the.”
2
Responses to the survey described below indicate that this confusion is still present today.
least important words: ‘for’ and ‘the.’” Thus, the official acronym changed from MCA, a term

with little usage within the college, to MAC3.

From the administration’s perspective, such a switch is simple and beneficial for

everyone—we move from linguistic chaos to a clearly-defined term. According to Sacheli,

faculty and staff that were asked about the potential for the change were enthusiastic. The

students’ reactions, though, were surprisingly negative.

To insert myself into the narrative, I was fascinated by this name change and its response.

Having entered the college believing I would be spending time in the MCA, I was surprised

when students and faculty referred to it as the CFA. Then when the change to MAC was

announced, I felt research was necessary. I compiled a survey asking a few background

questions as well as five free response questions that targeted reactions to the name change. I

first distributed the survey to my friends and classmates, mostly first-years. I then considered

faculty input: how did the employees of the college feel about the change? Finally, I put up a

few posters in the building in question directing people to my survey.

At the time of writing, I have 64 responses: 44 students, 14 faculty members, 4 staff

members, and 2 graduates. Figure A shows a breakdown of class year. In addition to class year,

I tracked frequency of visiting the building, which you can find in Figure B. In hindsight, I think

it would have been valuable to ask about major/field of study to better understand how people

interact with the building. Still, the free response questions were where the bulk of my data

would lie.

3
The term “MCA” had such a small following, in fact, that advertisements for the name change read “The CFA is
now the MAC”, disregarding MCA entirely.
My first free response question was simple: what name do you use to refer to the building
4
? This was a measure of what term(s) community members actually used. I found that the less

someone used the building, the more likely they were to simply call it the CFA. My second

question played into this, asking what terms their peers most often used. Still, those with little

connection to the building answered “CFA.” This reinforces the idea that the group one

associates with has a strong effect on language. Of those who frequented the arts center, CFA

was still the most common term in use. Other names brought up by students and staff include

the other acronyms (MAC, MCA, and MCFA), “Center for the Arts,” “Arts Center,” “Mahaney5

,” and other variations. Those who mentioned MAC generally explained that they heard it

infrequently if at all.

Because of the many name changes in the college’s history, I thought it would be useful

to ask if respondents had used other names in the past. I predicted that at least some people

would have had similar experiences to me, and that held true: one respondent answered “I called

it the MCA in my first semester but then met friends that felt strongly about calling it the CFA.”

Other respondents cited similar experiences, where they would enter the college knowing the

acronym “MCA” and learn upon arriving that that term is rarely used. It makes one wonder if

“MAC” is doomed to the same fate, with current Middlebury students so strongly opposed to the

shift that incoming students will be forced to use CFA to fit in. This is corroborated in other

responses: when asked if there should be one term that all community members use to refer to

the building, one student said “It should be called the CFA because that's what everyone calls it.”

4
I intentionally made this and the next question free response as opposed to a checklist because I wanted to see what
people used in an unprompted setting.
5
Sacheli was surprised to hear that students referred to the building as “Mahaney.” One reason for the name
change, she explained, was to get more in line with arts buildings around the country with catchy names like “the
Flynn.”
The answers to this question—whether respondents believe one term should be

used—raised some interesting themes. Many of the responses from students pointed to an idea

of “rebelling against authority”—by choosing not to use the term MAC, students can show their

independence from the institution. Regarding “MAC,” one faculty member wrote, “Some

students seem to hate it, but that seems more symptomatic of general dissatisfation [sic.] than

anything else.” Others focused more on the building’s namesake, with one respondent

explaining “he doesn’t care about arts in the slightest and he isn’t the kind of person that we

should be affectionately naming this building after.” Another wrote “I don't care if a rich donor

wants his name said. I think that the system just furthers entitlement.” Many respondents also

noted that in 2018, Mahaney was accused of covering up sexual assault (Pollard). Though the

charges were dropped later that month, tensions remained for students still concerned about the

accusation6, 7.

Another major theme is clarity. Many respondents expressed the idea that consistency is

the most important factor in choosing a name. One faculty member explained, “I don't much

care what it's called, but I think it would be ideal if we all used the same name.” In response to a

question about insecurity in name choice, one student said she had felt insecure “because so

many names are used, and I value consistency and clarity.” On the other side of the spectrum,

many respondents expressed an appreciation for the building’s many names: “it's a bit eccentric

because of all the names that it has, and I really enjoy that about the building”, wrote one

6
Whether or not Mahaney the original accusations against Mahaney were true is irrelevant to this paper. All that
matters is the effect these accusations had on public response.
7
The choice of some respondents to call the building “Mahaney” sheds light on exposure to this story. One faculty
member noted, “I started to call it ‘Mahany Arts’ [sic.] shortly after the Mahany bequest and new signage (ten years
ago?), but then I read an article about the Mahany in question and decided I didn't want to use his name. So I try to
avoid it.”
respondent. Another said, “I think there should be no set name, but different names for different

groups that build community.” Others felt that they were understood no matter what name they

used.

I don’t think it would be out of line to say that this is a question of identity. I was

surprised at the passion many respondents had about this issue, and in trying to understand their

emotions I realized something: this building is not just a part of the campus’s identity, but the

students’. Whether they refer to the building a certain way to fit with an “in-group” or to rebel

against the administration, students pick names to pick sides. Sacheli explained that the term

“MAC” was created because the building was having an “identity crisis” due to all of its

different names; in an interview with ​The Middlebury Campus,​ she said “With this change, we

hope to achieve some much-needed clarity about the building’s identity” (Kapp). It is clear,

though, that the building’s identity is not the only thing at stake. To those who frequent a

building, a seemingly arbitrary change to its name can seem like an affront, an invalidation of

one’s connection to that building. An article published in ​The Campus​ written by music majors

at the college summarized the issue well: “As far as we are concerned, the identity of the Arts

Center and its inhabitants is one that prizes creativity and diversity, that encourages students to

freely create and exercise their imaginations. We will continue to refer to our beloved building

with the myriad titles that reflect the true goals of the arts at Middlebury.”
APPENDIX A: Relationship to college

APPENDIX B: Frequency of arts building attendance


WORKS CITED

Andres, G. (n.d.). About Our Architecture. ​Middlebury.edu.​ Retrieved May 15, 2019, from

http://www.middlebury.edu/arts/mac/MAC_arch

“The CFA is now the MAC!” (Feb. 21, 2019). ​Middlebury.edu.​ Retrieved May 15, 2019, from

http://www.middlebury.edu/arts/news/node/611258

Corgery, G. et al. (Feb. 28, 2019) Music Majors Reject the ‘MAC’. ​The Middlebury Campus.​

Retrieved from https://middleburycampus.com

Kapp, C. (Feb. 14, 2019). CFA Becomes the MAC, and Students Ask Why. ​The Middlebury

Campus​. Retrieved from https://middleburycampus.com

Pollard, A. (March 14, 2018). Woman Accuses Donor Kevin Mahaney of Covering Up Rape.

The Middlebury Campus.​ Retrieved from https://middleburycampus.com

Pollard, A. (March 21, 2018). Accuser Drops Charges Against Kevin Mahaney. The Middlebury

Campus. Retrieved from https://middleburycampus.com

I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this assignment.

I think my final paragraph especially is relevant to this discussion. Grammar and usage

are part of people’s identities, so when an institution tries to change it there is bound to be

resistance. It was enlightening for me to realize that. On a more literal note, this is my first time

using APA citations and footnotes, so I’m hoping I did everything right there.

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