What’s in a name? Penn rebrand row ‘shows need for consultation’

Carey gift puts price on value of a name and asks who ultimately should control it

November 18, 2019
Source: Getty

B. J. Courville can still remember the “magical” sensation of getting accepted into Penn Law, the renowned University of Pennsylvania Law School.

“I remember the first time I purchased a Penn Law sweatshirt,” the third-year student said. “I almost overdrafted my bank account for this $40 [£31] sweatshirt – I was so proud to go there, and to be associated with this historical and just amazing and prestigious place.”

Ms Courville’s experience demonstrates the importance of names and brands to students who dedicate a significant portion of their life to an educational institution – and then rely on it for their success in the workplace.

It also explains why Ms Courville was among the thousands who signed a petition protesting against the sudden rebranding of the 169-year-old department as the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School – “Carey Law” for short – after the receipt of a $125 million (£97 million) donation from the W. P. Carey Foundation.

In response, startled university leaders raised some hopes by telling students that they would weigh options with the donor, but they subsequently made clear their intent to keep the money and the name change.

“It’s my complete conviction that this gift is the right thing for this law school,” the law school dean, Theodore Ruger, told Times Higher Education. “It’s going to do amazing things for students.”

Professor Ruger said Penn’s leadership had “anticipated an intense reaction”. He promised to “create structures and pathways to ensure that every single student and every single alumni voice is heard in terms of how we prioritise every aspect of this gift”.

But Penn is by no means the first university to face such a backlash from alumni over the renaming of a department to commemorate a significant philanthropic gift, and leaders from other institutions cautioned that consultation might be more effective before such deals are concluded.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign learned that with two recent episodes, said Shawn Gilmore, a member of the campus’ faculty senate.

The first, the 2017 naming of the business college after alumnus and entrepreneur Larry Gies in return for a $150 million gift, raised similar protests over academic influence and input into the decision.

The second – this year’s naming of the engineering school after William Grainger and his foundation in return for a $100 million gift – was done under new rules, prompted by the first, that required extensive campus consultations and it went more smoothly.

“Everyone should be clear,” said Dr Gilmore, a senior lecturer in English, “about precisely who actually makes the final decision, and what inputs need to be given to that.”

Debra LaMorte, a former vice-president for development at New York University, affirmed that US higher education needs such big-dollar donations at times of heavy financial pressures. But Ms LaMorte, who was at NYU when a 2015 renaming of the engineering school after donors led to a 1,300-signature petition, agreed that institutions and their benefactors needed to be more inclusive.

“Get everybody on board, so that when the announcement comes out, there can be a big celebration and everybody’s got ownership of the gift,” advised Ms LaMorte, now an attorney with the management consulting firm Marts & Lundy.

Penn planned its celebration well in advance, inviting law school students to a reception on 8 November, but this was immediately after the board of trustees voted unanimously to accept the Carey gift and the renaming. While students were inside, workers pulled down “Penn Law” banners along the street and replaced them with “Carey Law” versions.

As students realised what was happening, and the secret preparations that had gone into it, many grew angry, Ms Courville said. “It was a total disaster,” she said. “Not only were we not consulted, we were not given any notice.”

The resulting petition says that students and alumni paid to attend Penn Law and benefit from the reputation of its name. Among other problems, they note that the University of Maryland already has a “Carey School of Law”, named after the same benefactor.

One Penn alumnus, Osagie Imasogie, now an adjunct professor of law and a member of the school’s board of overseers, said the community should be grateful for “this very generous gift”. Asking the community in advance for its opinion on the name change, he said, would have run the risk of embarrassing the Carey Foundation and causing it to reconsider the gift.

But Edward Halperin, chancellor of New York Medical College, who has written about name-change considerations in academia, said such fears were unfounded.

“Offend the donor?” Professor Halperin asked. “It seems to me that if you said, ‘Thanks for this wonderful offer, I want to consult about it, we’ll get back to you,’ that ought to be a mature conversation.”

The name issue gets to central questions of a university’s identity, Professor Halperin added. “I don’t think the faculty are employees of the school; I think they are the school. I don’t think the students are stakeholders; I think they are the school,” he said. “So I think they are entitled to a say in something that I believe that they in part possess.”



Print headline: Whose name is it anyway?

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Reader's comments (1)

If Coca-Cola changed its name to Carey-Cola for $125million would that make sense? I would argue it would be a terrible mistake. The brand is worth infinitely more. So the university "leaders" have let the school down. In this day of age when stakeholders are so important what were the "leaders" thinking? Alas it does not surprise me because I have seen buildings renamed for money at dear old Pennsylvania.

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