Is It Time to Just Stop Naming Things After Donors? How to Address Mounting Campus Controversies

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JMU Paul Jennings Hall

Examples of institutions grappling with the problematic history of their founders or early donors aren’t hard to find. Seriously. A quick Google of my own alma mater, James Madison University, proved that JMU is actively trying to parse its troubled history and make some amends. 

Last fall, JMU celebrated the opening of a new residence hall: Paul Jennings Hall. According to a JMU press release, “as James Madison’s personal manservant, Jennings observed intimately the irreconcilability of one of our nation’s greatest champions for liberty and justice participating in the institution of slavery.” Despite his contributions to democracy, Madison literally owned other human beings—is it time for the institution to be renamed? 

According to a 2017 informal poll by James Madison University student Tabitha Sawyer, a majority (91% of over 2,600 responses) of students said no. In JMU’s case, the controversy was more of a non-controversy…at least for now. 

But what if there is an active push by students to rename a building, program, or even the school’s mascot? 

And what if a major donor who’s been supporting the school for decades (or multiple major donors, because, whether you know it or not, they’re probably talking amongst themselves) feels frustrated by the idea that young people who are new to the campus are able to have such influence and power. 

Even if a stakeholder’s perception—and by stakeholder I mean donor or student—is an oversimplification, perception shapes opinion and opinions shape action. 

Campus naming opportunities are a way for schools to recognize a founder or donor’s generosity. And, let’s be honest, they’re also a way to generate big gifts for the institution. And the visibility of a major gift paired with the naming of a prominent building may inspire other donors to give.

But, as John Thelin points out, “Colleges and universities face unfinished business in some other areas of heritage and representation in their campus monuments.”

In addition, campuses can be lightning rods for social causes and debates. This shouldn’t be surprising—colleges and universities are grounded in idea-sharing and discovery. Many young people first encounter the power of activism at their university. Personally, I think my undergrad years were when I was the most politically vocal. Undergraduates can be especially passionate when it comes to issues related to their school and its history because a student’s identity may be tied to the institution. 

The donor’s identity can also be tied to the institution. Donors often want to feel that things like the school’s history will stay intact and remain unchanged. If a major donor shows dissatisfaction when an institution starts renaming major buildings, monuments, and programs, recognize that it may not be about the political or historical issue at hand (i.e. Madison’s slave ownership in the JMU example). Instead, what the donor might be most concerned with is the idea that their own legacy and impact could be erased. The donor also may see it as an unfair “swipe” at their older generation (an “OK Boomer” attitude from the students) or that these young students haven’t yet earned the right to try to force changes of this magnitude. 

I spoke with a major donor at a large public research university in the Midwest. This major donor also recently served on a working group that the institution formed to address the issue of renaming a program that was named for a philanthropist who was a slave owner (an issue taken up previously by several other colleges and universities including Georgetown, Yale, and Duke). This donor and working group member explained…

“I kept hearing other major donors say that the school was turning its back on its history and past. I don’t know what that means. These donors all agree owning slaves is reprehensible and evil. I think the real issue is that major donors are afraid that something similar is going to happen to them or their friends; that they’ll be judged by some future standard they can’t predict and their legacy will be humiliated after what was meant to be a huge act of generosity.” 

-Major donor and working group member

Similarly, student dissatisfaction may be motivated by deeper concern—that the institution is more motivated by money and power than ethics. Or that the institution doesn’t truly value them or take them seriously. 

Major gifts from an ever-shrinking number of donors make up the lion’s share of philanthropy to colleges and universities. As state funding dries up, higher education institutions need major donors to survive and thrive. They also need students—students who are invested in the institution’s future and proud to be a part of its story. 

A growing number of institutions find themselves in a balancing act when these groups are at odds. And a growing number of institutions are failing at that balancing act. 

Is your institution or organization ready to handle a naming or major gift controversy? 

Here are our tips to prepare:

1 – Seek out context and allow for nuance. 

I want to clarify here that conflicts involving naming opportunities are just one type of campus controversy. All campus controversies occur on a spectrum, and they must be understood as such. On one end, you have the mildest of issues (for example, a plan to tear down an aging but beloved residence hall). On the other end, you have extreme violations, scandals, or traumas, such as the Jerry Sandusky coverup at Penn State. 

It doesn’t serve anyone to conflate a minor incident with a traumatic one (and vice versa). But in the middle of the spectrum are those more complicated, nuanced, or ambiguous controversies, sometimes involving a school’s past. 

As another major donor I spoke with about this issue articulated:

What happens when the social norms or the words I used in the past, what was then acceptable, are now considered offensive?

-Major donor to east coast school

In other words, how do we balance the legacy of our schools with changing norms, values, and expectations? 

No one wants to be on the wrong side of history, even accidentally. But which is more important to the donor, their legacy or students whose lives are enriched because of the gift?

Though we may fear the lens of history, it is what enables our society and institutions to evolve with the times. 

I don’t know the answer to this donor’s question, but I see great value in institutions making space for these conversations between all stakeholders.

2 – Listen closely. 

These controversies are about the issues, be it a recent scandal involving a corporation or a founding donor’s history of slave ownership. But these controversies are also about power and the need to be heard. 

Students want to be heard. Donors want to be heard. Giving each stakeholder group in a controversy the respect and time to share their concerns—holding space for them—is an integral part of the solutions. Another thing to note: some people believe that higher education in America has a liberal bias. As Scott Jaschik explains, “Yes, professors lean left (although with some caveats). But much of the research says conservative students and faculty members are not only surviving but thriving in academe—free of indoctrination if not the periodic frustrations.” But the perception of liberal bias can impact how some conservative stakeholders view and respond to conflicts that arise on campuses. In these highly polarized times, this tension or divide seems to be elevated.

Schools can use any or a combination of these ways to listen:

● Hold open forums. If possible, be sure to record and publish the input you get in open forums or discussions (anonymously, if needed). 
● Open an online survey. 
● Encourage individuals to submit their perspective in writing, and welcome open letters. 
● Plan a listening tour. (Check out an example of a university listening tour press release here.)
● Set up a working group or task force. When forming a task force, working group, or committee, the institution should try to ensure that the group represents a wide range of perspectives and types of stakeholders. 
● Spread the news about these listening initiatives where your stakeholders are, especially across social media.

3- Realize that no matter what you do, you cannot please everyone. 

Of course, there are some controversies that may never be resolved, especially the more complicated and ambiguous ones. This doesn’t mean the discussions aren’t worth having. Indeed, not addressing them head-on only sets the stage for a more painful dialogue later. 

Instead of trying to please everyone, which often leads to dishonesty or evasion, institutions maintain trust with their stakeholders when they take responsibility for their part in a controversy, especially in an extreme scandal. Having a timely and transparent response and plan for moving forward is also essential.  

Finally, if even after a fair working group or task force process, a donor says they won’t give another dime to the institution because of a name change or some other decision, it is okay to honor that donor’s wishes and let them direct their future philanthropy elsewhere. 

Also, time and patience heals many wounds. 

4 – Avoid creating a hierarchy of which stakeholders you value the most. 

This one is huge—no matter how great the need, no major gift is worth compromising the reputation of the institution. In addition, deferring to the most influential stakeholder group or the most visible and vocal stakeholder group will likely land an institution in hot water. So, how does a school decide the right thing to do? This brings us to number five…

5 – Make transparent policies and agreements NOW not when the…stuff hits the fan. 

Now, more than ever, schools should revisit and possibly revise their naming opportunity agreements, gift acceptance policies, and name changing guidelines. Making the drafting process of these policies transparent and making those policies publicly available can help create shared expectations among all stakeholders. 

As Thelin explains, “recent controversies and changes signal that each institution ought to draft a thoughtful protocol to consider—and reconsider—names honored on buildings and in other memorials. That might reduce the volatile clashes and hasty name-removing decisions that have surfaced recently.”

Not sure where to start? 

● Return to your institution’s mission; the values you want to follow are already there.
● Check out this helpful report that Berkley published in 2017: Building Naming Project Task Force.

Finally, schools can also reassure anxious donors that name changes are highly unusual. The school would only do this in extreme circumstances and only after a thorough, deliberative process. Make this deliberate process clear to a donor before accepting their gift and naming the building or program. 

Regardless of the rarity of the renaming process, institutions should be aware of the task they’re taking on and the precedent they might be setting. What seems like one incident may be the tip of the iceberg. For example, after strong pressure from students, Yale University recently decided to remove John C. Calhoun’s (another defender of slavery) name from a residential college. But what about all the other residential colleges at Yale named for men who supported slavery? 

Should Yale rename every building or program named for a problematic figure? Or only buildings and figures that come under public scrutiny? Or is there some other option? 

In a similar situation, a few years ago Clemson College decided not to rename Tillman Hall, named for Senator Benjamin Tillman, a white supremacist and lynching advocate. In 2015, the Clemson board of trustees chair David H. Wilkins explained the decision in a statement: “Every great institution is built by imperfect craftsmen. Stone by stone they add to the foundation so that over many, many generations, we get a variety of stones. And so it is with Clemson. Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at. But they are ours and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so. For that reason, we will not change the name of our historical buildings. Part of knowledge is to know and understand history so you learn from it.”

Carolyn Thompson reports on an alternative approach: “a majority of Georgetown undergraduates voted in April for a nonbinding referendum to pay a $27.20-per-semester ‘Reconciliation Contribution’ toward projects in underprivileged communities that are home to some descendants of 272 slaves who were sold in 1838 to help pay off the school’s debts. 

Georgetown President John DeGioia responded in October with plans instead for a university-led initiative, with the goal of raising about $400,000 from donors, rather than students, to support projects like health clinics and schools in those same communities.”

Is your school starting an initiative to address historical issues and inequities? We’d like to hear from you

6- Consider setting time limits on naming opportunities or doing away with them all together. 

What if colleges and universities stop naming buildings and programs after major donors? Based on our research, we couldn’t find one institution who has stopped this practice outright. (Know a school that has? Let us know.)

At the very least, institutions should consider setting a time limit (such as 10, 25, or 50 years) on how long a building or program will be named after a major donor.

Alternatively, a policy might provide for a periodic (i.e. every 20 years) review, by a cross-stakeholder team, of every named building, program, endowed chair, etc., to evaluate whether the name should remain, albeit this would entail a great deal of work on behalf of the school. But, as I pointed out earlier, campuses are places of critical thought and this project could be a worthy one. 

This spring, we’ll be hosting a free professional development webinar on how to address controversies that are related to or impact major donors and major gifts. Be the first to know when sign-up for our webinar goes live. Sign up for our Research Center and Newsletter today! 

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