The college-donor name game

Campus immortality comes smaller and cheaper now than it ever has

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Are you longing to be remembered at your alma mater, but don't have millions on hand to donate a new stadium, lab building, or library annex in your own honor?

Not to worry. At Ohio State University in Columbus, you can get a heating and cooling system named after you for $300,000. If that's too costly, consider a Victorian-style street lamp at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles for $15,000 - or maybe a magnolia tree for $5,000.

They're not exactly personal pyramids, but slathered across America's campuses, name plates on fences, benches, elevators, and lab equipment are meant to immortalize their benefactors.

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A $5,000 tree might not seem like much, but American higher education wants donations badly, no matter how small. Hit by state budget cuts, public universities are competing hard with private institutions to lure the cream of the student crop with new labs and fancy dorms.

In turn, college-development offices are coming up with a slew of imaginative ideas to fit the pocketbooks of affluent baby boomers - as well as corporations and Bill Gates types. The result is a naming frenzy for campus "interior spaces," unusual objects, and infrastructure.

Robert Hopkins, a USC alumnus who graduated in the early 1950s, recently anted up to name a light pole and a tree for himself and his wife, whom he met on campus. One reason USC is naming more objects these days is that "most of our buildings and schools have been named already," says William Loadvine, executive director of development.

"We find people tend to like landscaping," he says. "They come to campus and say, 'Here's my bench.'" Many trees and 14 USC lamp posts are still available to be named.

Ohio State is currently offering naming rights to a "mud room" ($100,000) in the nation's first and only Wetlands Research center, as well as its heating and cooling system. The control room was taken by a local sensor manufacturer for $200,000.

Across campus, meanwhile, Ohio-based Newell Rubbermaid recently paid $175,000 for the Rubbermaid Home Products Courtyard.

We think it's crass

Not everyone is happy over naming rights. Some states now require oversight. Florida's board of regents, for instance, now approves all building names, after a spat over the University of Florida's law school in which some disapproved of the personal-injury lawyer who gave $10 million for the honor.

Ohio has no such restrictions. But some Ohio State faculty groused about naming the school's new stadium complex - the Value City Arena and Jerome Schottenstein Center - after a department store chain.

More recently, a local newspaper noted the naming of Ohio State's veterinary hospital lobby after a benefactor's deceased dalmatian, Jane. The $100,000 gift renovated "Jane's Lobby."

But we have guidelines

While it may seem like anything goes in the college name game, that's not the case, says John Meyer, Ohio State's director of university development. "We try hard to be careful," he says. "We all know there's a line that mustn't be crossed."

Sheryl Bourgeois, head of development at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., agrees that selling names can be touchy. The university's law school is available to be named for $20 million to $30 million - but not by just anybody. "We would shy away from having our law school named after a law firm, or our school of music after a music company," she says. "We do have a value associated with our name, so we cannot sell out just to get that donation."

Still, for $25,000, there could be an elevator in Chapman's business school with your name on it.

While critics may think the naming trend crass, it's really part of a tradition that goes way back.

American higher education hasn't been the same since British merchant Elihu Yale gave bales of cotton, books, textiles, and other goods worth about £562 ($800) to the Collegiate School at Saybrook, Conn., in about 1718.

Since then, naming has become critical higher-education finance - and was key in the great fund-raising decade of the 1990s.

Between 1995 and 2000, donations to higher education by alumni - about 30 percent of overall giving - rose 89 percent to $6.8 billion from $3.6 billion, according to the Council for Aid to Education.

"This idea of going public with names connects to ego on one hand, and also to the idea of reinventing oneself, which is very American," says Joseph Boskin, professor emeritus of American social history at Boston University. "What the universities are doing is flexible capitalism. [They're] offering a way of becoming immortal."

Bargain hunters, take note

And there are still some great bargains. At Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. you can name a brick fence post outside the newly renovated stadium for $10,000. Or, for $25,000, you can have a plaque in the laundry room.

But for the budget-minded, Cottey College, a two-year school for women in Nevada, Mo., has a better deal. Five hundred dollars will get your name on an adjustable piano bench, and a bit more will buy a label on a microscope or lab table.

One Cottey dorm even boasts the "Gladys Earnest" memorial automatic door opener, whose benefactor donated $10,000.

"Kings immortalized themselves with pyramids," Dr. Boskin says. "It's now possible to immortalize a family name by having a bench, or a sliding door, or a revolving door. It puts it more in the reach of Everyman. It's the democratizing of immortality."

Send e-mail to claytonm@csps.com.

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