CHESTNUT HILL, MASS. — For the past several decades, "naming rights" have proliferated in American higher education. While by no means a new phenomenon, the tyranny of names is going to extraordinary lengths. In this, academe is accompanying trends in society in the era of the FleetCenter - make that the TD Banknorth Garden - and Gillette Stadium. Far be it from me to criticize needed efforts to raise funds at a time of fiscal constraints, but things have gotten out of hand.
Universities and colleges have long been named after donors - think of Harvard, Yale, and Brown. But by today's standards, John Harvard would hardly get a bench named after him, given his modest gift of books for the library back in the 17th century. Names such as Old Main and Bascom Hall indicate a bygone age when place and merit were recognized.
Now we have the Gloria and Jake Smith Administration Pavilion and the McGinty Family Chemistry Center. Many schools give donor names to class and seminar rooms. More than one institution of higher education puts names on its chairs - the kind that one sits in. Professorships have long been named for endowment donors, but some of these raise eyebrows - the FedEx chair, for example.
A major trend is naming colleges and schools within universities. We have long had the Wharton School, the nationally known business school of the University of Pennsylvania; Boalt Hall, the law school of the University of California at Berkeley; and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. These schools have, over time, achieved an image of their own, separate from the universities at which they are located. They are "name brands." Now we have the Rossier, Steinhart, and Warner schools - and hundreds of others. These happen to be the education faculties at the University of Southern California, New York University, and the University of Rochester, respectively. These schools are not recognized on their own, and they are unlikely to be in the future.
Why is all of this happening now? The main motivation is, of course, to raise money. Donors love to see their names, or the names of parents or other relatives, on buildings, schools, institutions, professorships, and the like. Increasingly, corporations and other businesses also like to have their names linked to educational institutions - this brings a certain respectability. Once all the major facilities have titles, lesser things go to the naming auction block - a staircase, a pond, or a parking garage. Development offices no doubt have lists of campus assets that can be named for various sums.
Naming is also about branding - and in the case of corporate naming, it is about product placement. Corporations may feel that they will benefit from having their names attached to a prestigious professorship. Academic decisionmakers may believe that if people see that a donor has given enough to name such a school, it must be very good. Top students will be attracted and other generous patrons will be lured.
In the era of "each tub on its own bottom," with faculties and schools increasingly responsible for their own budgets within universities, there is a tendency to operate independently - and to create a separate identity. A well-known case is the Darden School (a business school at the University of Virginia), which asked for, and received, considerable autonomy in return for being responsible for its own budget. It even brought donations to construct a new building - nicer than the usual state-funded facilities. In a few cases where professional schools have established reputations, wealthy alumni, and entrepreneurial leadership, it is possible to build an identity separate from the university. But for most, even at excellent universities, such recognition is difficult or impossible to achieve.
Separate branding weakens the focus, mission, and perhaps even the broader reputation of the institution as a whole. It confuses the public, and perhaps potential students. The tactic feeds the idea that the 21st-century university is simply a confederation of independent entrepreneurial fiefdoms. Branding also strengthens the professional schools and ignores the core arts and sciences disciplines, where separate identities do not work. And except for a few schools at the very top of the hierarchy, the naming frenzy will not produce schools with separate reputations and drawing power.
The trends we see now in the US, and perhaps tomorrow in other countries, will inevitably weaken the concept of the university as an institution that is devoted to the search for truth and the transmission of knowledge, of an institution with almost a millennium of history. The naming frenzy is symbolic of the commercialization, bifurcation, and entrepreneurialism of the contemporary university.
• Philip G. Altbach is Monan professor of higher education and director of the Center for International Higher Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.