$20M to Change College Name

Paul Smith's College proposes to become Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College in return for a substantial gift. Many students and alumni object.

July 17, 2015

Many colleges and universities are named for the donors who started them or who boosted them up. And many colleges have changed their names.

But such changes can be tricky when a college's current name is beloved -- and students and alumni want to keep it.

That appears to be the case for Paul Smith's College, a small private institution in the Adirondacks that focuses on fisheries, hospitality, forestry and business -- taking full advantage of its beautiful location. Paul Smith built a hotel in the region and served as a wilderness guide in the 19th century. His son left money to build a college in his father's honor.

On Thursday, the college announced plans to rename itself the Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College in return for a $20 million gift from the philanthropists Joan and Sanford Weill. (He is the retired CEO of CitiGroup and together they have already made major gifts to Paul Smith's and other charitable organizations.) The college says it needs state approval for the change.

The college's announcement seeks to link the commitments of the two people who would now share the college's proposed new name. The headline: "Two benefactors with a common cause." College officials said that the Weills are not only generous donors, but active fund-raisers who give their time to promote the college.

But alumni and some current students are vowing to fight the change. The college's Facebook page quickly attracted comments -- most of them very negative -- about the change. "Joan Weill has been a generous donor of both her time and resources, two buildings are already named in her honor. Is it necessary to rename the entire school? If it is truly a gift out of the kindness of her heart and love for PSC and the Adirondacks, there would not be contingencies like this. Let's not be greedy, PSC, and sell our school to the highest bidder," wrote one person.

Wrote another: "Since Paul Smith's College will no longer exist, I feel like my debts to it should also not exist." Wrote another: "Please do not do this. It is as if the possibility of someone taking my memories and manipulating them is real. It's not our values, money is not our game. We are Smittys, do not change the name."

Many have said that the new name, whatever one thinks of the idea of honoring Joan Weill, is too long and would look terrible on a T-shirt.

While the comments on social media were largely negative, a few people asked whether critics had themselves stepped up to provide financial support for the college.

The college, like many small, private institutions, has faced increasing financial pressure since the economic downturn that started in 2008. Last year, The Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported that the college's board approved a plan to cut its workforce (faculty included) by 12 percent. Some of the cuts were in unfilled positions, but others were layoffs.

Many of those criticizing the proposed name change Thursday evening noted that they applaud the philanthropy of the Weills and have no objection to honors for Joan Weill that fall short of renaming the entire college. The library is already named for her. Several have suggested naming a business college after her.

The Weill philanthropy in higher education has been most notable at Cornell University (Sanford Weill's alma mater), to which they have given more than $600 million over time. The Cornell gifts are reflected in the name of the medical school, Weill Cornell Medical College, but not the name of the university as a whole.


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