New college names are not for sale

Suppose, over champagne at a white-tablecloth fundraising affair, a rich Yale College alumnus — a CEO, a hedge-fund manager, a man of unlimited personal wealth — turns to Roland Betts ’68, the senior fellow of the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body.

“A billion dollars is yours,” he offers. “Just one condition: Christen one of the two new residential colleges with my surname.”

The proposal — seemingly a dream to any university — is a hypothetical one, but Betts already has a response prepared. “The answer is, ‘No,’ ” he confided in a recent interview. “We’re not going to do it.”

The Corporation, according to Betts and other senior University officials, has unanimously decided that the two new residential colleges, if built, will absolutely not be named for living donors. The decision marks a stark contrast with the case of the newly constructed Whitman College at Princeton University, which was named for eBay CEO Meg Whitman after she donated $30 million toward the nine-figure project.

“That’s not been our tradition,” Betts said. And, he added, the University has no plans to change that.

Last Saturday, the Corporation agreed to continue planning for what would amount to Yale College’s largest expansion in decades. With that decision, the two new colleges appear even more of a certainty — and the constant debate about whether they should be built, even more of a fruitless question.

But the question of what they will be named remains anyone’s guess. At a meeting last April with some 150 of Yale’s most generous benefactors, University President Richard Levin discussed the possibility of naming the colleges after their donors, although one alumnus in attendance said many donors present expressed great consternation at the prospect of abandoning Yale’s tradition of naming colleges after historical figures instead of deep-pocketed benefactors.

At the time, Levin told the News that for a college to be named after a donor, he or she would need to contribute at least half the cost of the colleges. That seemed to put the bidding at no less than $100 million, according to cost projections at the time.

But after what Levin described as a “very long and thorough discussion” by the Corporation, it is safe to cross “Bass College” off the list of possibilities for Yale’s future 14-college world — even if that famous Yale family, armed with a war chest that Forbes Magazine placed at no less than $14 billion, offered to bankroll the entire project, University officials promised.

“It’s a great hypothetical question,” Betts said. “That’s always the question around the table: ‘Well, do you have a price?’ ”

But be it $100 million or $1 billion, he said, the naming rights are not for sale.

“We’re not going to do that,” Betts said.

In interviews over the past few months, students have generally indicated that they are opposed to naming the new colleges after living donors, arguing that doing so would amount to the University’s selling out. Alumni have indicated they feel the same way, said Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach.

“There is so much consensus,” she said. “From what I hear from alumni … I think it would hurt us if we went the other way.”

Still, a quick glance at the University’s projected capital budget might suggest otherwise. The new colleges, according to preliminary budget estimates, will come with a price tag of around $600 million, making them the most expensive residence halls ever constructed on an American college campus.

At $136 million, Princeton’s 500-student Whitman College was relatively inexpensive, but administrators still offered up its naming rights. Whitman donated $30 million to help fund the new college, which bore her surname when it opened its doors this fall.

Princeton, however, has a history of naming its colleges after donors. Forbes College, for instance, was named in 1984 for the son of the benefactor who helped finance its renovation. In all, five of Princeton’s six colleges bear the names of generous 20th-century donors.

At Yale, on the other hand, among the names assigned to Yale’s colleges are those of several past Yale presidents, the early locations of the Yale campus and a handful of historic local figures. Nary a single residential college has been named after a living donor.

“Certainly that has been the rule,” said Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, an emeritus professor of history and author of a forthcoming epic biography of the University. “I’m glad they’re going to stick to that.”

The naming of the original residential colleges, Smith said, was subject to little fanfare. The official who oversaw the creation of the college system, Provost and eventual University President Charles Seymour, developed the names himself from the obvious choices — such as Abraham Pierson, Yale’s first rector — and presented them to the Yale Corporation for approval.

“There wasn’t much public debate over them,” Smith said. “They were pretty much just announced.”

Other buildings, not to mention individual components of the new colleges, like their libraries and dining halls, are certainly available for naming, Reichenbach said.

As part of their approval last week of further planning for the colleges, which would be built behind the Grove Street Cemetery on Prospect Street, Corporation members directed University administrators to develop an estimated budget for the colleges as well as a strategy to solicit gifts to pay for them.

Those two studies are expected to be completed by the Corporation’s meeting in April, and the board will take a final vote on whether to authorize the expansion either in April or at the Corporation’s next meeting, scheduled for June.

While the question of whether the colleges will be named for donors is now decided, the debate over which famous Yalie deserves his or her name on a college will not be settled anytime soon. University officials said it is far too soon even to consider that issue. But Levin vowed that students and faculty would have input into the process and that suggestions would likely be solicited from members of the Yale community.

Comments