September 15, 2004

What's In a Name?

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Semester’s worth of textbooks: $449; Ivy League education: $100,000 plus; having the University named after you: priceless? How about $500,000?

According to Inge T. Reichenbach, vice president for alumni affairs and development, Ezra Cornell’s original monetary contribution to the University was in the sum of $500,000. Though that is all it took for the University to be named after him, all of us Cornellians know that good ol’ Ezra gave much more than money to help C.U. get off the ground.

But as chair of the Committee on Memorial and Named Facilities, Reichenbach makes it her job to know everything about Cornell’s donor history — both recent and ancient. The committee consists of two faculty members, a representative of the provost and the director of development.

The committee, however, does not hold final say over naming rights on campus; they report to the Board of Trustees, which does hold final veto power. The committee does such a thorough job that the Board of Trustees rarely objects to its recommendations.

Andrew Tisch ’71, CEO of Loews Corp. and a member of the Board of Trustees, stated in an e-mail, “[I]n my short tenure, I am very impressed with the completeness and intelligence the Board exercises in making all its decisions.” The committee will meet to decide the guidelines for naming the building prior to its construction, which will include decisions about what secondary locations will be named, such as auditoriums, labs and classrooms.

According to Reichenbach, the committee is fundamental to the continuance of Cornell’s legacy because the four endowed colleges receive almost all of their new building funding from donors.

The statutory colleges, or as she called them “contract colleges,” receive funding for new construction or renovations from the State of New York.

The endowment cannot be used for such grand new projects for two reasons. The first is that the principal can never be touched by any one’s authority. Second, the yearly interest is all wrapped up in the day-to-day running of the University. Many who donate to the endowment, stipulate how their gift shall be used.

For this reason, the University is left to rely on donors for new construction projects. So, long ago, the administration decided to reward large donors with the naming rights of the buildings they help to construct.

So how much does the naming of Duffield Hall cost? According to Reichenbach, a donor must give more than half of the total cost of the building, for the $58.5 million Duffield that is nearly $29.25 million.

The other half of construction costs are recouped through the sale or donation of smaller rooms or even seats like in the Schwartz Center.

The yet unnamed Life Sciences Building has yet to find a donor willing to donate the half of the $150 million estimated to build the project.

Reichenbach said that with a building in such preliminary stages as the Life Sciences, many donors are unwilling to commit because they wish to see architectural renderings that cannot be commissioned without more money.

Some buildings — such as the Jansen Noyes Community Center on West Campus or the newly opened Alice Cook Hall — are named in memorial of Cornellians whose contributions to the community have been exceptional.

Noyes ’39 is named after the late chair of the Board of Trustees who passed away in May of last year. The new community center to be built as part of the West Campus Initiative will continue to bear his name.

According to Reichenbach, faculty members on the West Campus Steering Committee felt it was “symbolically important that the [new halls] be named for influential professors.”

Isaac Kramnick, vice provost for undergraduate education, who headed the West Campus Steering Committee, said, “We wanted to symbolize, in the very name of the [resident] house, the role of faculty leadership, in that they were going to be playing a very informal yet pivotal role in student lives.”

For that reason, all five new dorms will not be named for donors but rather for professors who were committed to bridging the gap between students and professors.

Kramnick said, “It was not a negative comment on alumni donors naming buildings on campus, but a positive comment on the role of faculty in this new project on campus.”

To help cover the costs of the West Campus Initiative, the memorial committee has decided to reward donors with the naming rights of newly constructed buildings on North Campus.

Bob and Helen Appel’s donation, which changed Community Common’s name to Appel, has gone to help pay for the costs of the West Campus Initiative.

Cornell paid for most of the North Campus Initiative via income from dorm payments and mortgages, but the nearly $200 million West Campus Initiative has a far costlier price tag. According to Reichenbach, the administration felt that rent increases could not possible cover the cost of the initiative — so they decided to reward donors donating to West Campus to be commemorated on North Campus. They are still searching for donors willing to contribute enough money to earn the naming rights to the new dorms Mews and Court, which are according to Reichenbach, merely “temporary names.”

The policy of naming buildings after famous benefactors is not a new process by any means.

Prof. Barry Maxwell, comparative literature, noted the allure of naming a building after one’s self: “As concrete evidence of the power of capital accumulation, it’s hard to beat a university building, particularly when one also buys along with it the cultural reputability associated with the university enterprise in the United States.”

“Thanks for the buildings, then, but they’re hardly the best evidence for the value and lastingness of our work as educators,” he added.

On the terrace behind McGraw tower is a wall with the engraved names of Cornell’s most important patrons. This is the cream of the crop and a veritable who’s who of Cornell history.

It is there you will find the likes of the Uris, Gannett, Stewart, Kroch, Rockefeller, Statler, Schwartz, Sage, Teagle, White and, of course, Ezra.

In 1982, as part of the construction of this memorial, the University published a collection of brief biographies, entitled The Builders of Cornell, to commemorate each patron’s individual contribution.

The collection begins with Ezra’s $500,000 and credits him with “breathing life into an idea” that became Cornell.

It also explains the contributions of the man who provided freshmen soft-serve waffles for dinner: Robert Purcell.

But the former chair of the University Board of Trustees also gave generously to the University’s endowment and expanded many of its minority scholarship opportunities.

And Ezra’s $500,000 has now been adjusted for inflation. In 1998, Sanford Weill ’55 and his wife Joan donated $100 million to the Medical College, and gave another $100 million again in 2002. The University was overwhelmed by his generosity, and renamed the Medical College, the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Medical College. The money is being used to upgrade facilities and “strength clinical mission.”

Their donation was well-timed.

“The [medical college] was perched on the verge of the top ten medical colleges, but needed top notch facilities,” Reichenbach said.

Archived article by Michael Margolis
Sun Senior Writer