What's in a Name?

The donor behind the newly named Gies College of Business wasn’t controversial at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But faculty members worry the next donor could be.

November 29, 2017
University of Illinois

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign enthusiastically announced last month that its College of Business was being renamed for wealthy donors who were making one of the largest gifts ever recorded to a business school.

The gift, from financier Larry Gies and his wife, Beth, totals $150 million and is unrestricted, aside from being directed to the College of Business. It is tied for the fourth-largest gift ever given to a business school, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. It comes at a critical time, when Illinois is in the middle of a campaign seeking to raise an eye-watering $2.25 billion by the end of 2022.

With that campaign underway, the gift could easily set the tone for naming other colleges within the university. The practice of naming colleges and schools after donors has proliferated across higher education but has not taken hold at Illinois, which had not named colleges for individual donors before christening the Gies College of Business in an announcement Oct. 26.

But the celebrations soon hit a snag: some faculty members felt they hadn’t been properly consulted on the renaming of the college.

At issue are disagreements over seemingly obscure rules for naming or renaming colleges at Illinois. Faculty members have not voiced broad opposition to the gift itself, the identity of the donors or the addition of the Gies name to the business school. And for this case, they ironed over the disagreements earlier this month so that objections did not obstruct the renaming of the College of Business.

Still, many feel that the underlying issues have yet to be resolved. The potential exists for disagreements to arise in the future if Illinois moves to rename other colleges after more donors who may be more controversial than the business school's patrons.

Both administrators and faculty members at the university have signaled a willingness to clarify naming processes in the future. Nonetheless, the situation exposes tensions that run far beyond Illinois -- tensions about shared governance, the potential influence of donors and who should have say in the names prominently attached to institutions of higher learning.

“There really is a deep tension -- and it might be a necessary one -- in a public institution that is changing how it thinks of its funding model,” said Shawn Gilmore, a professor of English who chairs the Senate of the Urbana-Champaign campus’s Committee on University Statutes and Senate Procedures. “We probably have to get a little more comfortable thinking about how to use outside options.”

Those tensions can build up when colleges and universities ramp up fund-raising. Consequently, they are likely to appear more frequently as institutions across the country turn to outside donors to combat expected budget issues, even if they express themselves as disputes over rules.

“One of the things that I run into most when I do consulting work around the country is that there is a lack of clarity concerning what the rules really are,” said James Lanier, a senior fellow and consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. “You get two or three attorneys and all are very certain about viewing this in different ways. Much of the time it is simply a lack of talking about these things before people’s emotions get involved.”

Some say a lack of communication is at the heart of what happened at Illinois. University statutes require that the Senate and unit faculty record votes before a college can be renamed, Gilmore said. Under the principles of shared governance, it is important that the statutes be followed, he added.

But the College of Business renaming was announced at the end of October, surprising many faculty members, and it appeared on trustees’ agenda before a Senate vote had taken place. The Senate was not provided with proper documentation on the proposed change before it was brought before the body in November, Gilmore said.

Even so, faculty voted overwhelmingly to endorse the name change at a meeting shortly before trustees gave their approval. But they added an amendment stating that the process followed in this case should not establish a precedent for future renaming of colleges, according to The News-Gazette.

Faculty members have acknowledged that this particular instance involved a donor who was not attaching strings to the money and whom few, if any, find objectionable. Gies is CEO of the Chicago-based private equity firm Madison Industries and has frequently spoken on campus. University officials say that he did not originally ask for the College of Business to be named after him -- he agreed to make the gift before he agreed to the naming.

However, faculty members worry about what happens when a controversial donor wants to give money on the condition that their name is attached to a college. Several pointed out that Playboy founder Hugh Hefner was a University of Illinois alumnus. If administrators had moved to name a college after Hefner, faculty members would have wanted a say in the matter.

“I’ve made it clear that this is something we should address soon, especially because of our current philanthropic drive,” Gilmore said.

The idea of a big-name donor sparking a naming controversy isn’t entirely hypothetical. The history of higher education is filled with instances where major gifts and college namings have been contentious.

A decade ago at the Urbana-Champaign campus, a faculty panel pushed administrators to renegotiate a deal to set up the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government Fund, finding fault with plans for narrow ideological restrictions and tight donor control that would have infringed on traditional faculty autonomy. Elsewhere, faculty balked at the idea of renaming the University of Iowa's College of Public Health after the insurer Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield (it remains simply the College of Public Health today). More recently, in September of this year, a $200 million gift to the University of California, Irvine, that would rename a college the Susan and Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences and orient it around integrative health drew criticism from some who said it was bending to the wishes of wealthy donors advocating for junk science. (This paragraph has been updated to note the correct university to which Susan and Henry Samueli donated.)

Administrators aren’t disputing that faculty members should offer their opinions on college naming. But they maintain that they followed proper procedures for naming a college after a donor.

They say the college wasn’t being substantially renamed -- it was having a donor’s name added to it. As such, they did not have to follow university statutes requiring a faculty vote on a renaming but could instead follow the Campus Administrative Manual’s rules for naming a college. Those rules call for Senate advice instead of approval.

A substantial renaming happens when the college’s focus changes, said Jeffrey R. Brown, dean of the College of Business. Changing the College of Commerce and Business Administration to the College of Business in 2003 was a renaming; making the College of Business the Gies College of Business was not.

“Part of this comes down to renaming versus naming,” Brown said. “This was viewed as a naming. There was nothing about this that was changing the focus or in any way signaling anything about the direction or scope of the college.”

Many faculty members disagree with that interpretation. Nicholas C. Burbules is a professor in the department of education policy, organization and leadership at Illinois. He is a former Senate chair. The Senate at Illinois has a history of successfully balancing flexibility and tight timelines with meeting the letter and spirit of regulations, he said. Even if the rules over naming and renaming a college are ambiguous, the Senate should have been consulted.

“Bureaucratic procedures are our governing documents,” he said. “There is a reason they are there. But secondly, the Senate has shown repeatedly when there is something that is time sensitive, there are ways you can do something within the spirit of the rules.”

The business college’s dean, Brown, said he brought in faculty members from the college during the process. Ten days before the gift and naming announcement, he walked the college’s executive committee through the details. The committee, which functions as the faculty governance body within the College of Business, voted for the change, Brown said. Information on the renaming was also provided to Senate leadership.

Brown pointed out that donors want some assurance that their gifts are being negotiated in confidence and that they’re unlikely to hit major snags after they are announced. But he would be open to reforming or clarifying the university’s process going forward.

“The process is going to work if we balance the needs of the donors with the faculty,” he said. “There are a certain amount of political considerations, privacy considerations and so forth that have to be brought into play. I’m more than happy to be part of a conversation around clarifying these rules for the future. In some ways, I can do that because my college is already named. But I think it’s important for other deans to have clarity on what’s involved.”

Gilmore will be addressing the issue in future meetings of the University Statutes and Senate Procedures Committee that he leads.

“We just don’t have a long history of naming institutions for donors,” he said. “Maybe we will in the next 10 years. It’s one of those deep tensions that is much more on the surface now than it has been in the past.”


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