Donor Intent at Paul Smith’s College: How Long is “Forever?”

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August 17, 2015; New York Times

Joan Weill has been a force on the board of directors of Paul Smith’s College and a major donor for 20 years. Now, she is attempting to proffer an offer she hopes cannot be refused: $20 million in return for a name change.

The small four-year institution, located in the Adirondack State Park in New York, specializes in hotel management, wildlife, and forestry programs and its annual budget is modest at $36.6 million. Its student body is small at 1000, but apparently it is an object of desire for Ms. Weill, wife of a Wall Street billionaire and board member of the college for 19 years.

The Weills have already donated millions to the college, enabling the development of new library and a student center, both of which are named for her. But now she wants the entire college to bear her name, as in the Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. The only problem is that the college’s founder, Phelps Smith, who died in 1937, had directed that the school be “forever known” as Paul Smith’s College of Arts and Sciences.

The college needs the money, it says in its petition to the New York State Supreme Court. Reportedly, it operated at a deficit of nearly $2 million in 2013, and its endowment is very modest at $27 million. The college’s administration believes the forever restriction “nearly fatally impedes” its ability to attract a large gift and “may make it impossible to maintain the institution for higher education in the future, as was the general purpose of the gift.”

Judge John Ellis heard the case yesterday but has deferred his decision so he can study the matter further. The office of New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman must approve any such change, but has indicated in a brief filed with the court that it has no objection to Paul Smith’s College’s request.—Ruth McCambridge