Nick Taylor-Vaisey has an interesting article in University Affairs this week, discussing the need for universities to have clear guidelines for placing the name of a philanthropist, corporate donor, politician or former educator on a building or program.  There is also a conversation with Vincent Duckworth, a Calgary-based educational consultant, where the issue is addressed further.

Naming is a tricky business.  Donors are often promised (or demand) a building be named after them or a relative of theirs when they make a considerable donation to an academic institution – I, for one, will never forget the long hours of study at the Nahum Gelber Law Library at McGill University.  For students, administrators and other community-members, a name is generally a cumbersome but innocuous addition to a building or program.  And if it helps make ends meet, all the better.

The challenge comes when the name, for whatever reason, is offensive to some or becomes offensive to all.  I actually met Nahum Gelber (a McGill alumnus) and his wife.  They seemed like nice people.  They gave for my benefit.  I thanked them.  But I would feel pretty odd, twenty years from now, giving a nostalgic campus tour to my son, as we pass the Bernard L. Madoff Department of Finance and stop for lunch at the Conrad M. Black Cafeteria (and imagine the dish they would reserve for David Radler).  Donors have many hats.  Crimes are revealed.  If the name of a convicted offender appears prominently on a campus meeting-place, what is a university to do? 

I was once told of a university south of the border that had accepted a generous donation from one of the key participants in the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s.  Once the news came to light, the university spun into action but was left unsure of what to do: the cost to remove the offender’s name from the building was half of what the offender had actually donated! 

Universities need policies and/or agreements with donors to ensure there are clear and mutually shared expectations about how the university will respond to these issues.

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