What's the Name of This University?
Amid the cornfields of central eastern Illinois lies a public land-grant research university. What’s it called? For most universities, this question is simple, but in this case, its answer has perplexed students, alumni, and Wikipedia editors for decades.
If you ask the university’s marketing office, their answer is perfectly clear: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. If you came here for a simple answer, there you go, but buckle up, because there’s a lot more to the story.
To truly understand the nuances of Illinois’s flagship university’s name and why people are so confused about it, we have to take a journey through 156 years of geopolitics, branding, and grammar.
Land of Lincoln
The year was 1867, and Illinois needed a new school. When Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act five years earlier, the federal government granted every state a piece of land to establish a federally endowed university, and each state got to choose where to put it. The states also kicked out lots of Indigenous people in the process, which the universities occasionally acknowledge to this day.
After a bidding war, the humble town of Urbana won Illinois’s jackpot, and in 1867, a new land-grant university was born: Illinois Industrial University. It was founded in Urbana by academic warhorse John Milton Gregory, who was more of a liberal arts guy himself but called the university “industrial” to appease industry-obsessed lawmakers.
Gregory served as president of the university for 13 years until he tossed his papers into the air and resigned in 1880. Soon after, the university was beginning to realize it wasn’t just “industrial,” with burgeoning programs in agriculture, engineering, and Gregory’s favorite liberal arts. So in 1881, a year after Gregory’s resignation, students voted 250–20 to ditch the word “industrial” in favor of a new name. It took four years, but in 1885, the university finally changed its name to the more holistic University of Illinois, a name that stuck for a while.
John Milton Gregory died in 1898 and was buried next to Altgeld Hall on the university’s Main Quad. Legend has it, Gregory’s dying wish was to leave a modest legacy and have nothing named after him. So he’d be thrilled to know the university’s Department of History is now housed at Gregory Hall, which is a quick walk away from both Gregory Street and Gregory Drive.
A tale of two cities
It was the turn of the 20th century, and the University of Illinois was expanding. It was already leaking into Champaign, Urbana’s larger neighbor to the west, but it was time to go north.
In 1896, the Chicago College of Pharmacy joined forces with the university, officially becoming the School of Pharmacy of the University of Illinois. Over the next couple decades, the University of Illinois family also gained a College of Medicine and a College of Dentistry, both up in the Windy City.
Sometime around 1905, letters and publications from University of Illinois administrators gradually started including “Urbana” with the university’s name, probably to distinguish the university’s main campus from its growing medical presence in Chicago. This riled up citizens and business owners of Champaign, who wanted their name on the university that spilled into their city. Champaignians published multiple op-eds in local newspapers arguing that Champaign and Urbana should split the bill. Urbanans rightly pointed out that the bulk of the university was in Urbana, including its administrative offices (and thus the university’s mailing address).
The Urbana vs. Champaign debate heated up, and in September 1906, the university’s Board of Trustees held an actual meeting to resolve it. What came out of this meeting was the name “Urbana-Champaign”—with Urbana first and foremost, like the university itself. Soon after, “Urbana-Champaign” began appearing on official university correspondence, and over the course of the next few decades, it became a commonplace way to refer to the campus. But it wasn’t until 1969 that the university officially codified its new name, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The Illini Union, as seen from the Main Quad (in Urbana, not Champaign)
If you solved my latest crossword, or if you’re from the area, or if you know too much, you’d know that the metro area including the twin cities of Urbana and Champaign is called Champaign–Urbana (or C‑U, or Chambana, or Shampoo–Banana), not Urbana–Champaign. That’s because Champaign has pretty much always been more populous than Urbana, and metro areas are conventionally named with the more populous cities first, like Dallas–Fort Worth or New York–Newark–Jersey City.
So we have a university campus called Urbana-Champaign, in Champaign–Urbana. And you’re just gonna have to deal with it.
Drawing the line
You might have noticed another difference between Urbana-Champaign and Champaign–Urbana: Urbana-Champaign is written with a hyphen (-), while Champaign–Urbana is written with the slightly longer en dash (–). This isn’t a mistake, because if it was, I wouldn’t be pointing it out. So what’s going on here?
If you’re big into style guides, you might know that hyphens generally join two parts of one word or name (like post-punk or Anya Taylor-Joy), whereas en dashes join two associated but distinct things (like red–green colorblindness or the Spanish–American War). You can remember that hyphens are shorter, so they connect things more closely than en dashes do.
As far as I could tell, the campus name Urbana-Champaign has always used a hyphen in an official capacity, possibly because Urbana and Champaign are two continuous parts of one campus, or possibly because hyphens are easier to type than en dashes. However, this didn’t stop the Wikipedia article for the school from being titled University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (with an en dash), after a zealous editor decided it adhered to Wikipedia’s style guide in 2010. The article’s title stayed this way until 2021, when the hyphen triumphantly returned after a lengthy talk page discussion. As the user JustinMal1 put it, “In many ways, the campus is much like a marital union, and marital unions are hyphenated, not en dashed.”
The metro area Champaign–Urbana, on the other hand, takes an en dash, since Champaign and Urbana are two distinct entities that just so happen to be the metro’s two largest cities. Or if you’re typing on a typewriter, you’ll just have to settle for a hyphen.
Remember those medical schools in Chicago? In 1961, they officially became a new campus, called the University of Illinois at the Medical Center. Then in 1965, another Chicago campus was established, named the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle after a nearby freeway interchange. In 1982, these two Chicago campuses consolidated into the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), a proud member of the University of Illinois family.
And then there was little Sangamon State University, Illinois’s smallest state university in its capital city Springfield, which lies in Sangamon County. In 1995, Sangamon State University was incorporated into the University of Illinois family and renamed the University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS).
Since then, these three campuses—Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield—have comprised the University of Illinois System, whose website is uillinois.edu, not to be confused with Urbana-Champaign’s illinois.edu, and whose legal name is the University of Illinois, not to be confused with the university formerly known as the University of Illinois.
Error in the system
The University of Illinois System was a well-oiled machine until 2009, when Springfield went rogue and axed the “at” in their name, becoming University of Illinois Springfield. The inconsistency remained for 11 years, with the other universities still “at Chicago” and “at Urbana-Champaign.”
Then something in 2020 gave Chicago and Urbana-Champaign some time for self-reflection. That fall, they finally followed Springfield’s lead, quietly removing the “at” and rebranding to the University of Illinois Chicago and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. But not everyone got the memo.
Excerpt from the University of Illinois System style guide
It wasn’t until spring 2021 that the university’s Wikipedia article was moved to remove the “at,” as a result of the same talk page discussion that restored the hyphen. Even still, the press isn’t on the same page about the name of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. You’ll still find the “at” in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and even style guide goliath AP. If you even ask a current student at the university, chances are they won’t know the “at” was removed, since the university never formally announced it.
Well, consider this your announcement. There is no “at” in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
What should I call it?
In casual conversation, reciting the 14-syllable University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign every time you refer to the school will get tiring. But lucky us, the university officially recognizes four nicknames for use on “second and subsequent references.” Let’s break them down:
University of Illinois
This former name of the university still sticks around as an abbreviation of sorts, but the university has mixed feelings about it. Since it’s also the official name of the University of Illinois System, the Office of Public Affairs at the Urbana-Champaign campus declared as of 2018, “Do not use the name ‘University of Illinois’ to refer to this campus.”
But people do anyway. In fact, if you search “University of Illinois” on Wikipedia, it redirects to the Urbana-Champaign campus, not the system.
You might be thinking, aren’t there three Universities of Illinois? What do the Chicago and Springfield campuses think of this? Well, the Urbana-Champaign campus is the O.G., the flagship, and the system’s largest campus to this day, with about 56,000 students compared to UIC’s 34,000 and UIS’s 4,000. As an anonymous redditor posted last year, “nobody on this planet refers to UIC or UIS as ‘The University of Illinois,’” so if you trust that comment’s 50-something upvotes, I don’t think anybody’s feelings are being hurt. But “University of Illinois” is still kind of a mouthful.
U of I
This is probably the most common way to refer to the school if you’re in Illinois, talking to other people from Illinois. In the Chicago suburbs, where I’m from, it’s what everyone calls the school. It’s also an officially sanctioned shorthand for campus tour guides to use, and the Office of Public Affairs permits it “for in-state and alumni audiences.”
The mammoth statue at the university’s Natural History Building. I just think he’s neat.
Only problem is, if you say “U of I” anywhere outside of Illinois, you’ll be met with confused looks. As of now, Wikipedia lists seven different universities on the “U of I” disambiguation page, including neighboring state university and fellow Big Ten member University of Iowa. Not great! But luckily, there’s another option, and it’s the same number of letters.
Every good school has an acronym. Chicago has UIC, Springfield has UIS, and Urbana-Champaign has UIUC.
The acronym UIUC has been in use to some degree since the ’70s, especially by professors and nerds, and especially on the internet. Registered in 1985, uiuc.edu was one of the oldest .edu domains, serving as the university’s website and email domain until it moved to illinois.edu in a 2008 rebrand. UIUC is also the name of the university’s subreddit, which was at one point the largest university subreddit in the country (curse you r/berkeley).
But the acronym isn’t without its downsides. The university doesn’t really use it in any official marketing material, especially since the 2008 rebrand. The acronym is better suited for text than for speech, with the muddle of “you-eye-you-see” often indistinguishable from UIC when spoken aloud. Relatively new in the lifespan of the university, the acronym also leaves a bit of a generational gap. My grandparents, who attended the university in the 1950s, never called it UIUC, and my mom, who has lived in Illinois all her life, had never heard UIUC until I was applying there in high school.
At the end of the day, kids these days still call it UIUC, and if you say it to someone who has been in school in the past decade, they’ll probably know what you’re talking about. And it’s about time someone puts it in a crossword.
Appearances (or lack thereof) of UIUC in major crossword outlets, per Crossword Tracker
The university has leaned into this nickname since 2008, and for good reason. It’s iconic, it works in both text and speech, and it’s unambiguous (assuming you’re not talking about UIC, UIS, Illinois State, Illinois Tech, or Illinois College). As the flagship state university of Illinois, it’s metonymous with the state itself, like how Michigan and Minnesota also refer to their respective flagship schools.
The nickname “Illinois” will be especially recognizable to anyone who’s ever looked at the Big Ten standings or a March Madness bracket, since ESPN has no time to rattle off the university’s full name. It’s all over T-shirts and hoodies, it’s in every student’s email address, and it’s plastered at the top of the university’s website.
This school has gone through a lot of names in its 156 years, from Illinois Industrial University to the University of Illinois to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. But today, if someone asks me where I go to school, my answer will be simple, and it’s been in the name all along: Illinois.
Sources and further reading
- A Brief History of the University of Illinois, University of Illinois Archives (1970)
- History of the name of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois Archives (2011)
- Urbana-Champaign Campus Designation, Campus Administrative Manual (2018)
- Our name, Office of Strategic Marketing and Branding
- History of the Universities, University of Illinois System
- Writing Style Guide, University of Illinois System
- History, University of Illinois Chicago
- The power of a name, University of Illinois College of Liberal Arts & Sciences (2021)