An Ugly Naming Rights Fiasco Plays Out at Paul Smith’s College


Joan Weill, the wife of billionaire Sanford Weill, has inscribed herself in stone as one of the greatest, most insensitive egos in today’s philanthropic world.

She recently pledged $20 million to financially struggling Paul Smith’s College in northern New York, located in the heart of the Adirondacks. Her only condition was that the institution, created in 1937 with a bequest by Phelps Smith in honor of his father, Paul Smith, be renamed Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. She didn’t even have the humility to demand the name be changed to Paul Smith-Joan Weill’s College.

The proposed award, although approved by the college’s president, Cathy S. Dove, and the college board of trustees, has created a storm of criticism from faculty members, students, alumni and other college supporters. It has also raised questions about naming rights, their appropriateness and the legal duration of their terms. Public concerns about these rights were recently highlighted by the gift of billionaire David Geffen to Avery Fisher Hall, a concert hall in New York, on condition that it be renamed in perpetuity as the David Geffen Hall.

A state judge ruled that the college could not violate a stipulation in the founder’s will that his father’s name should adorn the college in perpetuity. College officials argued before the court that in order to raise sufficient funds to maintain financial viability, the college had to eliminate the naming restriction. The judge disagreed, stating that the college could operate successfully without a name change.

The Weills, who own a home near the college, have already donated nearly $10 million to Paul Smith’s College to help build a library and health center, both of which were named after Joan Weill.

The College just decided that it would not appeal the judge’s decision, letting its name remain Paul Smith’s College. Despite the judge’s decision, Joan Weill refused to drop her demand for naming rights as a condition of her proposed award. So there will be no grant from Joan Weill; the college will have to find new donors.

What is it with people like Joan Weill, who need to memorialize their names on colleges, buildings, halls, libraries and projects? In the case of Ms. Weill, she and her husband already have dozens of buildings and halls named after them. Why do they need additional physical tributes? What is their motivation? Whatever happened to anonymous giving?

What is clear is that the focus of major donors has become more a consideration of their own status, needs, and satisfactions than a concern about the institutions and people they are funding. This shift in attitude is partly the result of society’s relatively recent embrace of celebrity and public recognition, but it is also driven by the new fundraisers who will do anything to secure money for their clients. In days past, potential big donors were offered naming rights as a strategy of last resort; today, it is common practice for them to be offered these rights as an opening gambit.

Joan Weill deserves the opprobrium she is receiving from both campus and non-campus residents. Perhaps she will come to her senses and give the college the unrestricted money it really needs. But for now, one has to question her integrity and good will.

  • Deb Bartle

    While I agree that the demand to completely change the name of an established college seems excessive and vain, I wonder at the outrage over naming rights, in general. One has only to look at the myriad Carnegie Halls and Libraries or Rockefeller Center, University, and Museum, to see that this is not a new trend in America. In, addition, the $2,500,000 originally donated by Phelps Smith in honor of his father would be roughly equal in present dollars to Ms. Weill’s proposed gift combined with her previous ones.

    • Mike Sullivan

      Unfortunately Deb you are way off base. Ms. Weill was already compensated for her original “Gifts” by the names of the buildings she partially funded. The original amount given by the Smiths in today’s dollars is ~$42,000,000.00 or double what Ms. Weill was offering to purchase the name of the college.

      Also, the Merriman-Webster definition of “Gift” is: “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation”

      “Without Compensation” being the key. Ms. Weill was obviously, by her post-decision actions, demanding that her name adorn the College in superior position as compensation for her providing the money.

      • Deb Bartle

        Interesting, Mike. We must have used very different calculators to have such disparate results come back. Would you consider any non-anonymous “gifts” truly without compensation under your rubric? Whether it’s a listing in an annual report, a named chair, or a building, the person making the gift receives some sort of compensation. It does seem ludicrous to make such demands after the fact.

  • Forever

    What needs to be understood is the petition was to remove the forever clause from Phelps Smiths will and rename Paul Smith’s College to that Joan Weill – Paul Smiths College. What has been verbally spoken from the President Cathy Dove was that the President and Board of Trustees were going to apply the forever clause to Joan Weill. The alumni asked specifically if somebody gave $50 million to change the name back could it be changed back and she said no. That’s the piece of the pie alumni were so outraged about. That will give you an idea of the Weills.

  • Jon Van Til

    Bravo, Pablo, for taking on these egotistical philanthropic bullies. I can remember once proposing the award of a “Babbitt Prize” for the grossest pseudo-philanthropic act of the year. This time around, the Weills would win hands down.