Donations need not have names attached

According to Yale Tomorrow’s giving catalogue, it costs $50,000 to get your name on a weenie bin in the new CCL. Regardless of whether that’s a fair price, perhaps potential donors should be asking whether it’s worth adorning subterranean study rooms with their names at all. I don’t suggest that they reconsider their giving, but I do suggest they leave their names out of it.

The reasons for giving to Yale are as numerous as its many benefactors, but I can think of four principal reasons: a sense of duty, loyalty or love developed during their own times at Yale; an affinity toward a program or department; a belief that Yale is the best place to foster an interest in something they care about; or the desire to leave a mark with their names for times to come.

Nearly everyone seeks recognition in leaving a legacy, but contemporary times are perhaps more recognition-conscious than ever. The online giving catalog for Yale Tomorrow, the University’s latest, $3 billion capital campaign, reflects that reality, constantly referring to the number of naming and recognition “opportunities.”

Naming classrooms or buildings after donors is nothing new for Yale or other universities. Indeed, last week’s article on the Bass family’s contributions over the years (“Bass money funds Univ.,” 11/3) notes the all-too-familiar names on campus, including Harkness and Sterling, the family names of two of Yale’s biggest benefactors, John William Sterling 1864 and Edward Harkness 1897.

Not all donors are as well remembered, however. In particular, Paul Mellon ’29, Yale’s biggest donor to date, is unknown by many because of his insistence on leaving his name off his gifts. Although much of his giving went to support the arts, his giving to Yale had few bounds, and his contributions impact Yale in myriad ways to this day. He donated the building for the Yale Center for British Art and the bulk of its collection, and he continued supporting the museum throughout his lifetime. He endowed professorships in schools throughout the University, endowed the deanships of all 12 residential colleges, funded Directed Studies, theater studies and the major in the humanities. He also helped Yale coeducate by funding the construction of Morse and Stiles colleges, adding the modern architecture of Eero Saarinen to Louis Kahn’s British Art Center. Despite all this giving, his name appears on almost nothing except the Paul Mellon Centre in London and the Mellon Forum program for seniors.

Wealth and philanthropy have a complicated history in the United States. At the turn of the 19th century, Andrew Carnegie advocated in his “Gospel of Wealth” that the wealthy entrepreneur has a responsibility of philanthropy (love of mankind) to give his wealth back to society while he was still alive. He said the man who dies rich, since he cannot take his riches with him, will die “unwept, unhonored and unsung,” even “disgraced.” Disagreeing with Carnegie, some American capitalists have tried to save their money for family dynasties, leading to recent lobbying against the estate tax by, among others, the Walton family and the (Yale-educated) Mars family, but even they have not avoided philanthropy. Recently and most nobly, Warren Buffett contributed much of his wealth to the Gates Foundation, forsaking a dynasty and a self-recognizing foundation in his best attempt to improve the world.

Yale isn’t wrong to offer naming rights to donors. Undoubtedly there are some who give or give more because the name of their choosing is ascribed to the fruits of their gifts, and at the end of the day, whether we study in the Cross Campus Library or the Rich Mann Library, the important thing is that we have a place in which to study.

I doubt vanity is at the heart of most philanthropy, but it is rarely entirely absent. If you cannot give without recognizing yourself, still give, but remember that philanthropy is about other people. It is nice when things are plainly named: the Yale Center for British Art, the Yale School of Management. You can leave a legacy without attaching your name. And if you really want to have the greatest impact with your gift, it is worth answering the rhetorical question Paul Mellon asked: If I name this for myself, will others be willing to support it in the future?

Patrick Ward is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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