NewU vs. NewU: The anatomy of a U of I branding dispute

Days after christening NewU Inc., University of Idaho officials heard from the old NewU.

The Washington, D.C.-based university demanded the U of I drop the moniker of NewU — its name for a nonprofit that would execute the $685 million University of Phoenix purchase.

And at least for a short time, NewU University demanded money from the U of I: a one-time, $25,000 payment, and $25,000 a week “until all improper use of the NewU name and mark is completely discontinued.” Having dropped the NewU brand, the U of I says it has no plans to pay NewU University.

Documents obtained by Idaho Education News, via a public records request, chronicle the branding snafu. First made public by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a libertarian-leaning group opposing the Phoenix purchase, the naming dispute represents a sidelight in the U of I’s controversial bid for a beleaguered for-profit online university serving some 85,000 students.

Here’s what happened, and when:

May 18. A day after the U of I announced its plans to acquire Phoenix, the State Board of Education endorses the purchase. At the centerpiece of the deal: The U of I says it will create a standalone nonprofit that would acquire Phoenix. The nonprofit’s name: NewU Inc.

May 31. An attorney representing a second NewU Inc. — the owner and operator of NewU University in Washington, D.C. — demands payments from the U of I.

NewU had staked out its operating name specifically because it was unique within the higher education marketplace, attorney Thomas W. Brooke says in a letter to U of I officials.

“Given that at this current time of year when so many prospective high school juniors and seniors, their parents, school counselors, and other educators, college advisors, and others are researching and exploring college options … we believe that confusion in the marketplace has occurred and will continue to take place until this situation is remedied,” Brooke writes.

June 6. In a reply to Brooke, a U of I attorney says the university will drop the NewU brand.

“Even though the university has no legal obligation to do so and its actions do not constitute trademark infringement, the university is in the process of changing NewU’s entity name to something else, simply as an olive branch to your client, as a fellow educational institution,” says Bradlee Frazer, a Boise attorney representing the U of I.

Frazer blames the name confusion on coverage from “certain unaffiliated third-party press outlets” — even though the NewU brand appears extensively in State Board staff materials written in advance of the May 18 meeting, and a May 18 State Board news release.

June 9. Noting the U of I’s “olive branch,” Brooke appears to drop the demand for payments. Instead, he suggests several ways the U of I and NewU University could collaborate — such as a joint undergraduate program in Washington, D.C., or a “Semester in D.C.” program for U of I undergrads.

June 16. Frazer says the U of I will consider Brooke’s proposals.

Meanwhile, U of I President C. Scott Green publicly acknowledges that a change of branding is in the works. “Evidently, there’s another university that uses NewU, so we have to change it,” Green tells the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. He says the nonprofit will be renamed Idaho Education Initiatives Inc.

June 21. The nonprofit’s brand changes again, abruptly. The U of I proposes a new name: Four Three Education, a reference to Idaho’s status as the 43rd state in the union. The State Board approves the rebrand unanimously.

June 22. In an email, Frazer informs Brooke about the State Board decision. “We trust this will now conclude this matter.”

In an email Thursday, spokeswoman Jodi Walker said the U of I never intended to brand its nonprofit as NewU. This was, she said, merely a “placeholder name.”

While Frazer’s email left open the possibility of partnering with NewU University, Walker said a collaborative project is not the U of I’s “focus.” But like Frazer, Walker painted the dispute as closed — particularly where money is concerned.

“(The U of I) immediately moved, in good faith, to change the name,” she said. “The university did not make any payments, nor is it planning to make any payments.”

The Freedom Foundation first disclosed the email exchanges on June 26. (Idaho Education News filed a public records request that day, seeking “emails and correspondence between NewU University of Washington, D.C., and its legal representatives, and the University of Idaho and its legal representatives.” The U of I released the records Monday.)

In a June 26 post, Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman said the email exchange underscores the secrecy surrounding the Phoenix purchase.

“The exchange of letters and emails between lawyers is less interesting than the fact that no state officials, or members of the public, were ever made even slightly aware of NewU’s complaint,” he said. “It makes one wonder what else the University of Idaho is glossing over, relative to its University of Phoenix purchase.”


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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