Clarence Fanto: Gifts to institutions ought not have strings attached
LENOX >> What's in a name? Plenty if you're a nonprofit awaiting a major contribution from a generous donor.
Naming rights have become increasingly controversial. To be clear, there are plenty of appropriately named sites around here — The Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation at the Berkshire Museum, in honor of the late brothers Armand and Donald, great benefactors most deserving of recognition.
We have performing arts stages named after founders and donors at Shakespeare and Company, Barrington Stage, the Berkshire Theatre Group, Tanglewood, the Clark Art Institute and many others. That's all well and good.
But what if a deep-pocketed donor had wanted to rename The Mount (aka The Edith Wharton Restoration) as it was seeking support recently to satisfy its mortgage and emerge free of debt? Fortunately, the organization raised more than $3 million, much of it from benefactors who preferred to remain anonymous.
Recently, Wall Street billionaire mogul Sanford Weill and his wife, Joan, withdrew their planned $20 million donation to Paul Smith's College, an Adirondack arts and science campus north of Saranac Lake, N.Y., after a state Supreme Court judge ruled that the school could not be renamed as the Joan Weill-Paul Smith's College, as the couple required.
Forever means forever
The school was founded in 1937 through a $2.5 million bequest ($41 million in today's money) from Phelps Smith that stipulated that the name Paul Smith's College of Arts and Sciences be kept forever in honor of his father, a back-country guide and hotel entrepreneur in the region during the 1800s.
The campus, which opened in 1946, was built on the site of Paul Smith's Hotel, which had burned down in 1930. The wilderness lodge had opened in the 1850s and hosted presidents, including Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge.
Mrs. Weill, an active supporter, board of trustees member and previous $10 million donor to the college, already had funded a new library and student center there — both are named after her. The Weills have raised about $30 million from other donors, The New York Times reported.
Sorry, but this looks like egotism run amok. The 900-student college, which trains students for careers in hospitality, forestry, culinary arts and many other fields, caters to rural residents who are granted financial aid to defray the $36,000 annual bill for tuition and housing. It's the only four-year college in the 6 million-acre "forever wild" Adirondack Park. The Weills have a summer home nearby.
Why not donate the $20 million free of conditions and revel in the knowledge that you've probably saved the financially challenged college? The campus has developed a five-year, $30 million strategic plan to reverse declining enrollment and update facilities.
Asked for reaction, Paul Smith's president Cathy Dove stated: "The Weills are really wonderful people, and I know they're disappointed. I'm disappointed. Honestly, in every conversation I've had with them they've continued to say we care about the students, and I don't think that will ever change."
However, she acknowledged that the Weills had not offered their gift without the naming requirement following the court ruling. They have not commented publicly.
The college had pushed hard for court approval of the name change, arguing that its endowment is only $27 million and that it lost $2 million in 2013 on a $37 million budget. The trustees contended that the donation would be a lifeline, allowing the college to raise its national profile and attract more support.
But the judge did not buy the argument, ruling that the case had not been made for overturning the founder's will. The college's trustees and the Weills chose not to appeal.
'Sort of bad taste'
Many alumni opposed the name change. Their attorney told reporters: "I think it's unfortunate that the Weills are not going to give the money, If they really wanted to give a gift to the school, it shouldn't be contingent on something as self-glorifying as naming the school after Mrs. Weill. I find it in sort of bad taste."
The head of student government gathered 3,000 online signatures on a petition against the Weills' proposal, and an active Facebook group pursued the cause.
But the alumni board supported the strings-attached gift, arguing that it was crucial to the college's survival.
A 2000 graduate, Donald "Moose" Jones, formed the group but conceded to Adirondack Life magazine that "it's a very divisive issue because people care. They look at this as the splitting-up of their home."
All may not be lost — an anonymous donor has a $5 million matching gift on the table if alumni and others step up.
That may be difficult, as a graduate who works as a forest ranger pointed out. "A lot of the alumni do not have super-high-paying jobs," he told The Times. "We're forest rangers, chefs, foresters. We chose career paths that make us happy in our personal lives but don't necessarily pad our bank accounts."
Some alumni question the Weills' motives, pointing out that philanthropy is defined as donating to good causes, without naming-right restrictions. Others call the couple's decision to withdraw their gift an insult to the college.
In some circles, donors insist and recipients acquiesce. Thus, Philharmonic Hall in New York's Lincoln Center became Avery Fisher Hall, until entertainment mogul David Geffen came along with a recent $100 million gift. It's David Geffen Hall now, across the plaza from the former New York State Theater, now the David H. Koch Theater — yes, one of the ultra-conservative Koch brothers.
There are reports that the Metropolitan Opera's name, or at least its lobby, might be up for grabs to the highest bidder.
Whatever happened to integrity, not to mention modesty? If I had the means, I'd donate millions to Paul Smith's College and my only string attached would be to double down on the founder's stipulation that the name remain the same, for all time.