Success of business school’s ‘non-naming’ deal evaluated

At its halfway point, the merits of Wisconsin School of Business’s decision to accept donations in order to not change its name is being assessed

June 12, 2017
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The price to buy nothing has gone up over the last 10 years and an exclusive group of donors is very interested in finding out what the next 10 will bring.

In the autumn of 2007, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced an unusual naming partnership for its business school. A group of 13 donors made gifts totalling $85 million (£67 million). In exchange, the Wisconsin School of Business would not change its name for a period of at least 20 years.

Wisconsin’s announcement stood out because it came at a time of significant business school naming, a few years after the University of Michigan’s business school received $100 million from alumnus Stephen M. Ross in 2004 and subsequently renamed itself the Ross School of Business, and the year before the University of Chicago received $300 million from alumnus David Booth and decided to rechristen its school the Booth School of Business.

Terry Hartle, senior vice-president of the American Council on Education, called it the most interesting development in philanthropy he’d seen that year. The Freakonomics blog posted what was perhaps the pithiest analysis: “$85 Million Will Buy You Nothing at the University of Wisconsin”.

In that post, economist Steven D. Levitt wrote that “it probably would have been a lot cheaper for the boosters just to bribe the Wisconsin legislature to pass a bill preventing the naming of the business school, although that strategy would not have gotten them many positive headlines.”

The Wisconsin Naming Partnership has added a few donors since 2007. It’s up to 17 partners and has raised $110 million. But the term of the non-naming agreement hasn’t been extended – so now $110 million will still buy you nothing at the University of Wisconsin.

As the partnership is approaching its midway point, Wisconsin administrators and donors are thinking about how it came together, how it has worked and what might lie in its future. Some early chatter is beginning about whether donations could be accepted to push back the partnership’s ending date.

The discussion opens a window into the world of higher education fundraising, valuation for naming rights and a university’s identity. It will also be watched with interest by fundraisers, who even a decade later view the deal as an innovative idea that regrettably hasn’t been replicated elsewhere.

In the early 2000s, the University of Wisconsin was one of only a few “Big 10” institutions without a named business school, said Michael Knetter, president and CEO of the University of Wisconsin Foundation. When he was dean of the business school, he began to examine the possibility of naming the school if a major donor could be found.

Internal analyses determined that such a naming agreement should bring in a donation of about $50 million, Professor Knetter said. He started to have conversations with deep-pocketed donors, but those conversations take time. And, during that time, Knetter started to question the idea of renaming the school.

“I felt a little bit uncomfortable thinking that one person’s name would somehow define the school’s brand forever,” Professor Knetter said. “These school namings are usually in perpetuity.”

At the same time, naming prices seemed to be going up rapidly. Rather than risk jumping into the fray at the wrong time, Professor Knetter thought it might make more sense to wait – or to not name the school. As he talked with different donors, alumni and stakeholders, he became less and less sure renaming the school was the right way to go.

“It doesn’t really often work out that the brand that a business school gets through naming has greater value than the parent brand,” Professor Knetter said. “Our parent brand was really extraordinary. And Wisconsin, I would say, has an ethos of egalitarianism about it that made me uncomfortable and I think made others uncomfortable. How would the business school be viewed on campus if we somehow tried to rebrand ourselves in a way that almost separated us, or distanced us, from the parent brand?”

Professor Knetter came up with an alternative: preserve the name of the school for a finite period of time, and do it through a collective gift.

The idea aligns with three of the most important financial ideas taught in business school, according to Professor Knetter. First, preserving future options can be valuable. Second, brand equity is valuable. Third, teamwork is important.

Professor Knetter set about seeking donations totalling $50 million for the idea. The first $20 million to $30 million happened relatively quickly. Then he hit a long slow period. But, after talks with some influential donors, donors bought in for well over $50 million in total. The partnership was announced at the end of October 2007, about two years after the first donors signed on.

Those involved said the idea seemed to fit the University of Wisconsin and its business school. The university and its business school are large and have many alumni, but they don’t necessarily have access to the same number of super-rich donors as do the country’s most elite institutions. The minimum donation amount for Wisconsin Naming Partners was $5 million in unrestricted money, and donors could put designations on money above that level. That allowed more donors to give relatively small amounts of money for a naming deal, rather than one mega-donor giving a larger chunk in the $50 million range.

“No way I could have done that,” said Wade Fetzer III, a retired Goldman Sachs partner who has chaired the University of Wisconsin Foundation board of directors and co-chaired a university capital campaign. “And, in a sense, by subdividing or syndicating, that was the tool that allowed Mike to raise this amount of money.”

The funding was also notable because it was largely unrestricted.

“Particularly at Wisconsin but probably in most capital campaigns, probably 90 per cent of the dollars are designated,” Mr Fetzer said. “So, in a sense, this is consistent because it’s designated to the business school. But it’s still unrestricted.”

The School of Business estimates that the naming partnership has funded about 10 to 15 per cent of its annual budget, which totalled just under $68 million last year. The partnership has funded an average of 12.5 full-time faculty members annually, plus scholarships for PhD and MBA students. It has allowed the school to invest in programmes and grow undergraduate enrolment from 1,362 in the autumn of 2007 to 2,540 in the autumn of 2016.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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