Ruizhi Qin ’11 returned to her Saybrook College double one day last month to find a new addition to the decor: a bronze plaque on the wall. It read: “This room was renovated in 2001 through the generosity of Thomas Leatherbury ’76 LAW ’79.”
Employees of Yale’s development office had mounted the plaque to recognize Leatherbury’s gift, which helped to defray the cost of Saybrook’s renovation in 2001. Qin thought Leatherbury, whoever he was, had probably once shared the same narrow double she now occupies in entryway D. She considered writing to Leatherbury to ask him about the room’s history.
“It feels like there’s some connection between us and the donor,” she said.
But Leatherbury never lived in entryway D, or even in Saybrook. He was a resident of Jonathan Edwards College.
While many Yalies, like Qin, speculate that the plaques on the walls of their common rooms and bedrooms feature names of former residents, most plaques do not. Instead, many plaques in student suites recognize alumni who never lived in those rooms or even in those residential colleges.
Alumni contributions for residential colleges are given in a variety of ways, including individual initiatives, capital fundraising campaigns or classwide gifts, Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said. The means by which a gift is donated determines an alumnus’s control over plaque placement.
Alumni who approach the development office individually or donate during capital campaigns can choose to donate to their old residential colleges — and sometimes their old dorm rooms, Reichenbach said. But donors who contribute through class gifts have little choice in how their money is spent. Unless donors request to endow specific suites, they may never know where their plaques reside.
“When we talk with an individual donor, we are very clear about what the donor would like to do,” Reichenbach said. “Class gifts are a little bit out of our control.”
In a few cases, alumni with a special affection for their former undergraduate haunts designate their donations for their old suites.
One suite hidden away on the sixth floor of Saybrook was home to four such students — William Greer Jr. ’51, John Hoagland ’51, Louis Kreutzer ’51 and William Whittemore ’51 — who lived there during their junior year, the third year they lived together. Though Whittemore had passed away by the time of Saybrook’s renovation in 2001, the three remaining roommates decided to endow what Hoagland called their “favorite spot” on campus.
“It was a long climb up, but it was a wonderful private room with a great view of the campus,” Hoagland said, recalling how rare a private bath such as the one in their suite had been at that time.
When a plaque recognizing their gift was mounted in the room in 2001, Greer, Hoagland and Kreutzer traveled to New Haven to see it and marked the occasion with a trip to Mory’s.
Reichenbach said the development office makes every effort to accommodate individual donors’ wishes, like those of the four Saybrugians. Alumni interested in donating can browse Yale’s giving catalog to decide what they would like to fund, be it a student suite or an entire dining hall, she said, and donors can request to fund specific suites.
“It’s all very transparent,” she said. “It would be very foolish to surprise the donor with something. You just don’t do that.”
Saybrugian Richard Schwartz ’70 also had fond memories of a favorite room, Saybrook 918, a suite that spanned three levels and opened onto a roof deck, he recalled. But when Schwartz made a donation toward Yale’s fundraising campaign for Saybrook, he was not asked if he wished to make a gift for a specific room. His name now decorates the wall of a third-floor common room in a different entryway.
“NOT MY DECISION”
In 2000, when the University planned to renovate Saybrook and Timothy Dwight colleges in the following two years, both colleges were struggling to fund the $40 million-plus renovations.
Then Saybrook got the ideal opportunity.
Two Saybrook alumni stepped up to the plate that March, promising up to $10 million to match all gifts Yale could raise to refurbish the aging college. Yale’s development office swung into action, announcing to potential donors that any gifts to Saybrook would automatically double in value.
To help, several alumni classes rose to the occasion during reunions the following spring, designating classwide gifts to help to fund the renovation. Plaques recognizing individual donors from such classes now dot the college’s suites, entryways and common spaces.
But because many alumni donated as part of the class gifts, many of those plaques bear the names of people with no particular connection to the college. Class gifts are not subject to the development office’s normal rules about telling donors where their money will go, so class gift donors rarely choose what capital projects their contributions fund.
“The individual’s approval of this is the fact that they give gifts,” Reichenbach said. “But it depends on class leadership to communicate with that class, so we don’t really have the control to make sure that all the I’s get dotted and all the T’s get crossed.”
A plaque acknowledging Homer Rees ’51 hangs on the basement wall outside Saybrook’s student kitchen.
But Rees, a graduate of Berkeley College, said he made the donation as part of his class’s 50th reunion gift.
“If they decided to give it to Saybrook, I didn’t have a vote in that,” he said. “That was not my decision.”
Rees said he could not recall being consulted about the plaque’s location or appearance, and he did not realize that the plaque had even been mounted.
As each of Yale’s residential colleges has undergone renovations, the development office has solicited donations from the corresponding college’s alumni, who often give gifts to endow student suites or other spaces without ever learning where their names appear.
Saybrugian Richard Swift ’75, whose name overlooks an entryway landing in Saybrook, donated to the college through the renovation fundraising drive, he said.
Though Swift said he intended to help renovate student suites, he was never offered the opportunity to renovate a specific room. He also never found out exactly for which suites his gift would be used, he said.
Neither did Fred Cohen ’78 and Carolyn Klebanoff ’78, a married couple who donated to renovate a suite in Davenport College, or Daniel and David Leffell ’77, brothers who donated to Pierson College when it was being renovated. Both pairs said they were indifferent that they did not fund renovations specifically for their former rooms.
Although many Saybrook donors had no affiliation with the college, it is customary for the development office to acknowledge donors with plaques, Reichenbach said. Plaques are a way to “show appreciation” for a donor’s contribution, she said.
Plaques are also a worthy investment in future donors, she said, adding that students who see the plaques realize that Yale runs in large part on the gifts of their predecessors. When they have the means to give gifts themselves, they are likely to donate, she said.
Plaques are a common means of recognizing donors in a tangible way, said Nancy McKinney, president of the Association of Donor Relations Professionals.
“The fundraiser should engage the donor in a specific conversation of how the naming will read and what the physical manifestation of the naming should look like,” McKinney said in an e-mail.
Leatherbury said the development office was careful to consult him about the location and appearance of plaques when he has donated to Yale previously. But he said he did not know where the plaque in Saybrook had been placed.
Yet many Yale alumni interviewed said their affection for Yale — and not their desire to be recognized — was paramount in their decision to give.
“Frankly, the recognition by signage is not important to me at all,” said Leatherbury. “That’s not why I give back.”
For Schwartz, the decision to donate to Yale went beyond his loyalty to Saybrook, his old residential college.
“It was about my experience at Yale, which I thought was wonderful,” he said. “My gift to Yale was a small repayment of a priceless debt.”