Recently, a small private college in upstate New York made the news when a $20 million donation was retracted because the school could not rename itself in honor of the donor.
Paul Smith’s College of Arts and Sciences, located in Adirondack Park and known for its forestry and hospitality programs, was set to receive a financial gift that would have significantly boosted its endowment, helping it to weather a challenging financial outlook. The would-be benefactors, Sanford and Joan Weill, wanted the school renamed for Mrs. Weill, who had long admired and supported the college through previous donations and fundraising.
But a New York State supreme court judge brought the renaming plans to a halt, ruling that the school was prevented from taking such a step by its founder, Phelps Smith. As the school’s original benefactor, Smith made a bequest in 1937 establishing the college and stipulating that it be named in perpetuity for his father, Paul Smith. In 2015, the school petitioned unsuccessfully to break the terms of the will. The response of college officials was, unsurprisingly, disappointment, saying that without the Weills’ donation, the institution is in dire financial straits.
The High Cost of Naming Opportunities
Though the dilemma at Paul Smith’s College is unusual, offering “naming opportunities” — that is, enticing patrons with a shot at immortality by pledging to brand buildings and schools in their honor — is not. In fact, the practice is now so commonplace that many philanthropists have come to expect a renaming when they make substantial monetary gifts.
In 2014, overall donations to American universities totaled $38 billion. To have a building named in their honor — as opposed to something smaller, like a scholarship, classroom, or lab — donors should expect to pay handsomely. And the price will be steeper the more prestigious a school is perceived to be. In the Ivy League, for example, the University of Pennsylvania renamed its medical school for an eye-popping $225 million; by comparison, officials at the small and relatively unknown Paul Smith’s College were prepared to rename the entire institution for only $20 million.
It’s perhaps no surprise that institutions of higher education choose to go this route when so many are short on cash. Though tuitions have risen rapidly over the past 40 years, schools are still struggling, thanks to a complicated web of challenges that includes federal and state funding cuts, updating infrastructure, and expanding student services. When colleges want to improve facilities, hire more faculty, build new housing, or engage in other costly projects, they must often rely on the generosity of private donors.
The Mixed Reaction to Renaming Practices
Business schools may be renamed more frequently than other institutions, perhaps because their alumni go on to lucrative careers at a higher rate than those in other fields and later make large donations to their alma maters. In 2008, for instance, the University of Chicago renamed its business school after David G. Booth when he gave $300 million. Indeed, many of the most respected and elite American business schools — Wharton, Sloan, Kellogg — already bear the names of benefactors.
But some places resist such renaming, regardless of the donation offered. Harvard isn’t interested — representatives of the university say its name is so renowned that they wouldn’t want to tarnish it by rebranding. (It may help that the school has the largest endowment of any in the United States, close to $36 billion in 2014.) Others agree; in Canada, the University of Alberta’s School of Business even launched a “Preservation of the Name” campaign to keep its moniker safe, citing its connection to the Alberta community as precious to students and faculty.
Occasionally, academics object to a renaming because they feel the donor’s politics run counter to those of the university. In a public letter to The Guardian, for example, 21 critics strenuously objected to Oxford University’s decision to rename its school of government after Len Blavatnik, a Russian philanthropist who gave £75 million to the school. Blavatnik, critics said, is an associate of Vladimir Putin’s, and has engaged in state-sponsored harassment of the British company BP.
Similarly, students at the University of Florida complained when their law school was named for Fred Levin, an attorney who made a $10 million cash donation in 1999. Levin, a UF alum, is a controversial figure; he is a highly successful personal injury lawyer who also been investigated for possible involvement in two murders.
On the other hand, sometimes renaming occurs when it means righting historical wrongs. In 2010, the University of Texas at Austin board of regents decided to rename a campus dormitory when Professor Thomas D. Russell revealed that its original patron, former UT faculty member William Stewart Simkins, had significant ties to the Ku Klux Klan. And in November, Georgetown students pushed the university to change the names of Mulledy and McSherry Halls, campus buildings dedicated to two former Georgetown presidents involved in selling slaves in the 19th century.
In New York, students protested when the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering was renamed for Chandrika and Ranjan Tandon, who gave the school $100 million. The college had already undergone multiple name changes over the past 10 years, having begun as Polytechnic Institute before merging with NYU to become Polytechnic Institute of NYU in 2008, followed by NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering in 2014. Students argued that this third rebranding was one too many. NYU’s administration, for its part, is holding steady with the renaming, explaining that the donation will go toward strengthening academic programs and hiring more faculty.
What universities do with large infusions of money varies from school to school, but such donations can yield better facilities, expanded programming, and new scholarships. And perhaps most significantly, some colleges direct the funds toward endowing new full-time faculty positions, in an era when many schools are criticized for leaning too heavily on low-paid, temporary adjuncts to teach their classes.
Naming opportunities seem a mixed bag, but as colleges increasingly scramble for financial support from new sources, it’s clear they’ll continue to be employed — and cause controversy.
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