A College By Any Other Name

To some at the University of Iowa, the corporate whiff of a potential "Wellmark College of Public Health" might be too much.
July 6, 2007

You can watch a game at the Jones AT&T Stadium at Texas Tech University or hold the Bank of America deanship in the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. How long before you could attend the Time Warner School of Communication or the Microsoft College of Engineering?

Some observers at the University of Iowa are worried that such a landscape might not be far off.

The university is in talks with a major Iowa health insurer, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, to accept a reported donation of $15 million from the company's associated nonprofit organization in return for possible naming rights to the eight-year-old College of Public Health.

"The issue that I would grapple with if we're in fact presented with a proposal for a business to give a gift [with a naming stipulation] would be the dilemma that's caused by the fact that it's a business," said David W. Miles, the president pro tem of the Board of Regents for the State of Iowa. "On the one hand, our regents … have benefited from a number of public-private partnerships.… We welcome that, and I just think it’s great that we get the support that we do from the private sector....

"On the other hand, when you get to the question of whether a college should be renamed with a business’s name somehow now in the name of the college, for any gift, no matter how generous or welcomed and well-appreciated by the university … that’s a step that we haven’t taken, and frankly I haven’t been able to find any evidence that any public university has done that."

The proposal would not have to be approved by the college's faculty, dean or even the university's interim president, Gary Fethke, but it would need the backing of the governor-appointed Board of Regents, who oversee the state's public universities. Miles said that the rules governing naming rights are "quite flexible," although they are currently listed as under revision.

At an emergency meeting on Thursday, the public health college's faculty voted nearly unanimously for a resolution that expressed appreciation for the potential donation but a desire to work toward an alternate way to express recognition more in line with national precedent. There appeared to be a willingness to accept a possible name change if it represented an individual of the foundation's choosing and not the name of the corporation itself.

While naming schools or colleges after major benefactors (including those whose companies share their name) is not unheard of -- think of the Wharton School or the oldest of them all, Harvard College -- and while corporate names grace campus auditoriums, stadiums, endowed chairs and buildings, this would possibly be the first instance in which a whole college of a major public university is christened with a corporate donor's namesake.

"You do have colleges named after individuals, but I don't know of any that are named after corporations," said Rae Goldsmith, vice president of communications and marketing at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which represents fund raising and development officials at colleges and universities.

There is a perception by some that the possible naming of the college would cross a definite line. The implication is that a public association with a health insurance company, one that has a history of both cooperation and contention with the university, could sully the college's image and reputation for conducting research that might not result in conclusions favorable to the insurance industry.

"That's the issue of conversation," said Fethke, the interim president. "I wish everything in life were always clear, crisp and clean -- but it's the way it is. Perceptions are one thing, and what the reality is of these gifts is another. We're not going to accept any financial gift with quid pro quo attached -- it's not going to happen."

Goldsmith agreed that research conflict of interest was a potential issue, although CASE's ethics guidelines don't have a specific prohibition on corporate naming. "There’s nothing, on the face of it, ethically wrong," she said. "The challenges are in perception. What is the perception for the prospective student, other prospective donors?"

Fethke will probably make a recommendation to the regents before they make a decision, although it is not clear whether the issue will be finalized in time for the board to consider it at its August meeting. As former dean of the university's Henry B. Tippie College of Business -- named for a person, not a corporation -- Fethke implied that he would probably support the possible naming of the public health college.

"My view of cooperative naming with businesses is, I am very comfortable with that," he said. "I'm encouraged by this going forward. [The college] can't function unless they're willing to form partnerships with businesses that are important for the college. It's an important relationship for both of us."

Iowa's governor, Chet Culver, hasn't weighed in either way. "The governor has been briefed on it and does have some concerns about it, and what he wants is, before making any rash decisions, to have a full, open and public debate about this before we move on," said Brad Anderson, a spokesman for Governor Culver.

Representatives of the Wellmark Foundation, the private, nonprofit organization associated with the insurer that would be the actual donor, did not return requests for comment. For critics of the idea as well as those on the fence, the distinction between naming the college after the corporation's nonprofit philanthropic foundation rather than the company itself may or may not be significant.

"The foundation part is meaningful, but how meaningful I don't know," Miles said. "If the College of Public Health were to become the Ford College of Health or the Ford Foundation College of Health, what name would be used in practice? I think it’s a fair question."

The college, while relatively young, is in the midst of major fund raising efforts intended in part to finance a major new building whose budget has been estimated so far at $44.7 million. Funding has been anticipated from university, state, federal and private sources. Wellmark's proposed donation would provide a major boost and continue its history of "ongoing and very positive" cooperation with the college, according to Fethke, including jointly sponsored programs and underwriting professorships.

But Wellmark's history with the university as a whole has been more contentious. The company's president, John Forsyth, was also president of the Board of Regents until he resigned following a contract dispute stemming from a change in the company's reimbursement policy for the university's medical center.

Which brings up the question of longevity. What if the university and Wellmark were to have another dispute in the future? What if the company goes bankrupt or finds itself under investigation? Just as the Enron Teaching Award caused some embarrassment at the University of Houston after that corporate scandal -- with similar repercussions from major donors finding themselves in hot water, such as Sanford I. Weill -- could making a corporation's name a fairly permanent aspect of a college's public face have potential downsides in the long term?

"[I]f something goes wrong with that corporation, and Enron is the best example, then you have an issue because your main institution is now tied to that corporation," Goldsmith said.


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