Decision to bar donors’ names from colleges sets Yale apart

In 1718, Elihu Yale was approached with a request. The Collegiate School was to move into a grand new home in New Haven — one in need of a donor.

“If what is forming at New Haven might wear the name of Yale College,” a friend of the school wrote to the wealthy Welshman, “your munificence might easily obtain for you such a commemoration and perpetuation of your valuable name as would indeed be much better than an Egyptian pyramid.”

And with Yale’s donation of 562 pounds sterling, the University as we know it was born. But with the Yale Corporation’s decision not to offer donors the chance to attach their names to the two new residential colleges that are likely to be approved later this year, the University is taking an entirely different course — a courageous one in an era dominated by donor names attached to everything from bathrooms to study carrels, according to fundraising experts.

But that decision will make attracting a lead donor to the project a more difficult task, according to a senior University official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“Obviously, some donors would not care,” the official said. “But,” the official added, “other donors would.”

***

Last spring, before the Corporation had endorsed the idea of two new colleges, University President Richard Levin estimated the price of naming one of the colleges at a minimum of $100 million. Administrators privately confided that the chance to provide the name for one of Yale’s colleges — and to the thousands of students who would pass through its gates over the generations — had excited some wealthy alumni.

Indeed, rare is the edifice erected on a college campus these days without the name of a donor emblazoned upon it, and the reason is simple, said Rae Goldsmith, a vice president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

“Because it is a successful fundraising tool,” she said.

Yale is no stranger to the strategy: From $250,000 for a portal at the Yale Bowl to $100,000 for Silliman College’s bookbinding room, from $50,000 for one’s very own Bass Library weenie bin to $100,000 for the referees’ dressing room at Ingalls Rink, the University’s own giving catalog is a veritable shopper’s guide to naming opportunities.

“Naming gift opportunities are among the most powerful allures for major gifts,” explained Claire Gaudiani, a professor at the George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University. “They are and have been, literally for a couple of thousand years, the way people of wealth have memorialized themselves, and that’s perfectly lovely.”

In fact, one can look as far back as the 13th century, when the Medici family of Florence began to amass its stunning wealth that, over the centuries, would be used to fund the construction of many of Florence’s architectural treasures. And that tradition has continued today, though with a modern twist: Take the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis as one example, or the Bank of America Executive Education Center at the University of Washington.

Gaudiani knows something about attracting donors for building projects: She did it all the time at Connecticut College in New London, where she served as president from 1988 to 2001.

“Go find some rich cat to donate a third of it, and then other people will chuck rooms in there and do the rest of it,” she said. “It’s the bread-and-butter way to do a building, and I’ve done a ton of them.”

Perhaps most notably, Princeton University named its newest residential college, which opened last fall, after eBay czar Meg Whitman, who donated $30 million to bankroll the project; other donors followed with $50 million in additional contributions.

Yale would seem to need more than a few Whitman-sized gifts to make the new colleges financially feasible — officials have indicated they hope a large majority of the capital cost can be covered by donors.

As the News reported last fall, preliminary budget projections place the cost of the colleges at some $600 million, which would make the new colleges the most expensive dormitories ever constructed on a college campus.

To make matters worse, the University will have to raise funds for the colleges while competing with both a recession and its own fundraising drive. Any funds raised for the expansion will have to come in addition to the $3 billion goal for Yale’s existing capital campaign, Yale Tomorrow, according to Inge Reichenbach, the vice president for development.

***

As Corporation fellows gathered their belongings on the marble staircase of Woodbridge Hall after their meeting last month to enter idling black sedans outside, Roland Betts ’68, senior fellow of the Corporation, sat in a second-floor office with Provost Andrew Hamilton and University Secretary Linda Lorimer, ready to talk with the News about a world of 14 colleges.

The Corporation was in favor of expansion, Betts quickly offered, which raised the question: What would they be named?

Or, at least, would the University allow the lead donors for the colleges the chance to attach their names to them?

“We’re not going to,” he said.

The reporter pressed.

“What if someone approaches Yale with a $1 billion gift? What do you say: ‘No’?”

The assembled administrators laughed, but Betts got serious.

“The answer is no,” he declared. “We’re not going to do it.”

Nevertheless, Betts said the Corporation’s decision should not cause Yale fundraisers to lose any sleep. The greatest benefactors to Yale over the years — the Mellons, the Harknesses and the Basses, among others — have not given to Yale to celebrate themselves but rather to invest in an institution for which they have great affection, he said.

After all, recent history provides perhaps the perfect example. In 2005, a donor gave $100 million to allow the Yale School of Music to stop charging tuition; it was an utterly historic, headline-grabbing gift, but the benefactor nevertheless requested he remain anonymous.

That same psychology defines Yale’s donor base more broadly, Betts said.

“Our donors,” Betts said, “they haven’t been driven by plastering their name all over the place. They have been driven by trying to make Yale fantastic now and into the future.”

In fact, while some donors have privately expressed interest in the colleges’ naming rights, most alumni have publicly indicated their opposition to the idea, according to Yale officials. At a meeting in New York City last spring with high-profile benefactors, most alumni were opposed to the idea of abandoning Yale’s tradition and offering the naming rights to the colleges, according to a donor who was present at the meeting. None of the University’s existing colleges carry the names of their donors.

Reichenbach said she has developed the same impression from her conversations with alumni.

“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.”

Take Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, the Yale historian and author of a forthcoming epic history of the University, as a representative sample. Told of the Corporation’s decision, Smith could not contain his relief: There had been rumors, he said, that a large enough gift could convince Yale to depart from its tradition of naming the colleges after great alumni, former presidents or local historical figures.

“I’m glad they’re going to stick to that,” Smith said.

***

Levin, for his part, declined to take a stance on the naming question, noting that it was a matter for Yale’s highest governing body to decide. But Betts said the University was confident it could still raise the money it wanted to raise even without offering naming opportunities.

Yet it is debatable, at least, whether the average donor would really be content with swapping $100 million for a plaque that reads: “The construction of Brewster College was made possible through the generosity of …”

Common sense would indicate that might be a tough sell. Gaudiani, for instance, called Yale’s decision “a courageous stand.” Without a doubt, Goldsmith said, Yale’s approach is the exception to the common practice.

“Does it limit the potential to raise those major dollars?” she asked. “Probably so.”

But Goldsmith insisted that does not necessarily mean the University will struggle to cover its costs. Aside from the overall naming right, donors are still often drawn to the idea of their names gracing a dining hall or library or exercise room, for instance — all of which the colleges will have, and all of which are up for grabs in terms of naming, according to Yale officials.

And it could work, said Nancy Raybin SOM ’79, managing partner of New York-based Raybin Associates, a strategic-planning and fundraising consultant for non-profit institutions.

“Without too much fuss or muss, you can add up to several hundred million dollars inside of the facility,” Raybin said. “You can have the dining hall, the arts-and-crafts room … and it can all add up very nicely.”

Reichenbach expressed confidence, too. She recalled a situation at her previous school — Cornell University, where she also led fundraising efforts — in which the faculty insisted new student residences be named for outstanding teachers, not donors.

Typical practice aside, the project was hardly doomed, Reichenbach said.

“We had to raise money for it, and it worked,” she said. “When you explain it, people will appreciate it and it will not impact on their generosity.”

In fact, Yale officials believe the construction of two new residential colleges would be such a landmark moment for the University that the project could galvanize donors in a way that few other initiatives have the potential to do — not just for the new colleges, but for investment in new faculty members and other resources that would be necessary to support an expanded undergraduate population.

“It certainly is a historical juncture for Yale,” Reichenbach said. “We haven’t added new colleges in quite some time, and it’s something that people can get very excited about.”

***

Yale’s new colleges, it should be noted, have not officially been approved; the Corporation will make that decision later this year, and only after reviewing a fundraising plan for their construction, which the Development Office is currently preparing.

Done deal or not, Yale’s announcement that it will not allow donors to name the colleges drew praise from several corners. A senior writer for the Wall Street Journal lauded Yale for “standing up against the vanity-building boom … [in which] schools seem to be throwing up buildings more for their donors than for their students.” Even the fundraising chief at Princeton, which Yale officials have not hesitated to note has taken a very different approach to its funding of new colleges, found meaning in Yale’s decision.

“We try to maintain an excellent relationship with our donors and, as much as possible, respect Princeton’s traditions and culture,” said Brian McDonald, Princeton’s vice president for development, in an interview with the Daily Princetonian last week. “In terms of Yale’s decision not to name the two new colleges after living donors, this is consistent with their tradition.”

Nevertheless, the experts interviewed said that Yale’s decision aside, naming is here to stay.

“It’s quite common and has been for a great many years,” said J. Patrick Ryan, a former dean at the University of Southern California who now works as a private fundraising consultant. “It’s likely to continue to be the inclination of universities and most non-profits to honor generous benefactors by attaching their name to a facility.”

He added: “The fact that Yale has decided not to do it … is notable, but it’s certainly not because it’s the leader in a new trend away from that.”

Gaudiani, who praised Yale’s approach, nonetheless agreed. “It’s going to be critical for all institutions to keep doing it for as far forward as I can imagine,” she said.

If nothing else, the debate about for whom to name the new colleges — former University President Kingman Brewster? Or what about Edward Bouchet 1874 GRD 1876, the first black man to graduate from Yale? — is sure to inspire rancorous epistolary dialogue, as it did when Yale last expanded the residential-college system a half-century ago. Levin said he hopes to involve all members of the community, from students to faculty members to alumni, in the choosing of the names of the new colleges.

But that’s about as far as one’s imagination should wander.

“Except residential colleges,” Betts said, “we’re willing to name every building at Yale after a donor.”

Comments

  • Obvious name

    Swensen College. He's done the most for Yale recently.