Nancy Pelosi from San Francisco, CA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

December 15, 2020; Vox, “Recode”

Yesterday, in an unusual and purely symbolic move, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 10 to 1 to condemn the renaming of the San Francisco General Hospital after major donors Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

The Zuckerbergs gave the hospital $75 million five years ago—the largest single gift ever given to a public hospital—and it was subsequently redubbed the Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.

Those organizing against the name include hospital nurses, anti-Facebook activists, and progressive lawmakers, who have a mix of objections to the hospital’s new name. The most basic among them is the belief that a taxpayer-supported institution should never be named for a rich donor. Others, of course, have objections to this particular donor. “San Francisco’s only public hospital should not bear the name of a person responsible for endangering public health in our country and around the world—and yet it does,” says Gordon Mar, one of the SF supervisors who took a lead on the measure. “These are policy choices, and they have a body count.”

“We’re of course thankful for the gift and we’re thankful for any gift to our most important institutions during this time,” says Matt Haney, another supervisor backing it. “But that doesn’t mean that we should for forever essentially have given away advertising rights on this most essential public institution.”

San Francisco’s residents are not the first to object vehemently to the naming of a public institution after a donor. In an exhibition of massive insecurity in 2018, a Wall Street billionaire offered $25 million to have his alma mater high school named for him.

Wall Street billionaire Stephen A. Schwarzman offered his former high school a $25 million gift to fund a major renovation, asking that the school be renamed “Abington Schwarzman High School” in his honor. He also asked for approval rights on the contractors, input into the school’s logo, and some spaces named after his brothers. Abington residents showed up in force at a five-hour school board meeting marked, according to a report in the New York Times, by “shouting, name-calling and more than one demand for officials to resign.” A petition to dump the renaming deal drew 1,500 signatories who objected to the lack of transparency and backdoor deal-making in the name of residents who had not been consulted.

Kim Meredith, the head of the hospital’s foundation, stressed that the “heartfelt gift” from Zuckerberg and Chan had made the city “a model of care” during the coronavirus pandemic.

NPQ newswire writer Rob Meiksins later wrote in a follow-up:

Since our article ran, the proposal to rename Abington High School as Abington Schwartzman High has been withdrawn. Apparently, Stephen Schwartzman has renegotiated the deal to remove requirements about naming portions of the school after his brothers and his having the right to approve contractors. Instead, as the article says, “The focus is back now where it belongs: on bringing state-of-the-art technology to a public-sector school and allowing teachers to embed computer science firmly into the curriculum.”

The concept that excessive self-aggrandizement and attempts to own institutions that are meant to be widely owned may cause negative goodwill is an interesting idea that nonprofits might use with their more thoughtful donors. After all, do they want all those others to flee the scene when they arrive?

For some, the idea of the public institution, as supported by and accountable to the public it serves, is a principle that shouldn’t be breached for a one-time gift.—Ruth McCambridge