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University of Pennsylvania administrators likely did not expect criticism or disapproval from students and alumni when they announced that the law school had received a $125 million gift to increase financial aid, expand pro bono programs and recruit top legal scholars.
After all, the donation from the W. P. Carey Foundation -- the largest ever to a law school -- would finance worthy goals that are widely supported.
But the gift also meant the University of Pennsylvania Law School, a name the institution has held since its founding in 1850, was renamed the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. The name change did not sit well with large numbers of students and alumni, who’d chosen the law school because it was one of the most selective and highly regarded in the country. They staked their career outcomes and professional reputations on the well-known Penn Law brand.
The response was swift. More than 3,000 students and alumni signed a petition demanding that the law school’s short-form name used on official correspondence, signs and merchandise be restored from Carey Law back to Penn Law.
The students may not have realized that the Carey Foundation is also a known brand in higher ed circles. It is a major benefactor of law and business schools named after various members of the Carey family. There’s the Francis King Carey School of Law at the University of Maryland ($30 million donation in 2011), the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University ($50 million donation in 2003, $25 million in 2019), the Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School ($50 million in 2006) and the Francis J. & Wm. Polk Carey J.D./M.B.A. Program at Penn law and business schools ($10 million in 2015). (A Carey family member either attended or was somehow affiliated with each of the institutions the foundation supported.)
William P. Carey II, chairman of the foundation, said the latest gift to Penn was higher than past donations to the other institutions because of the law school's future ambitions.
"At an institution of Penn’s stature, we felt a large grant would be necessary to achieve all of the plans the Law School had laid out to truly transform the legal education it was providing," he said in written responses to questions about the donation.
Carey said the foundation has no formula for making such donations as it relates to naming rights.
"While we take a quantitative approach to measuring the potential and success of grants, it comes down to alignment of values and partnering with the best administrators," he wrote.
While naming rights are a matter of course in the world of philanthropy, widespread branding by one benefactor on so many different college campuses is unusual. But is it too much? And is that question even relevant when colleges and universities across the country are experiencing declining enrollment and revenue and donations by individuals are down?
“One of the issues in the field today is whether too few funders or too few families of wealth are dominating the landscape, because it takes significant capacity to do these kinds of things,” said Tim Seiler, the Rosso Fellow in Philanthropic Fundraising and former director of the Fund Raising School at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “So there is a perception of this kind of power overtaking the more common philanthropy that people might be more comfortable and familiar with.”
He said most universities would undoubtedly welcome a $125 million gift and would go along with the naming rights that come with it -- and with good reason.
Large gifts that help institutions supplement faculty salaries and provide student supports such as scholarships and increased financial aid are an important and necessary resource, he said.
Donald Tobin, dean of the University of Maryland law school, understands this all too well.
“We are proud to be the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law,” he said in a written statement provided by a spokeswoman. “The generous gift from the Carey foundation has enabled us to expand our efforts to help students with career placement and bar passage, and enrich the academic life at the law school.”
Tobin said his institution is proud to be known as the Francis Carey law school and welcomes the University of Pennsylvania law school to the “W. P. Carey philanthropic family.”
Seiler said Penn had more to gain than to lose by joining the Carey fold.
“It seems to me that there’s a benefit to having the school continue to carry the UPenn name and have the Carey Foundation inserted with it,” he said. “I don’t think the brand has been lost. The school is now associated with a benefactor whose gift is going to do a lot of good. My default position is that when a foundation makes a gift of this sort, they have good intentions. Are they getting something out of it? Absolutely. They are now associated with a prestigious and reputable institution, and the institution is associated with a reputable foundation. I would argue it’s more positive than negative, the proverbial win-win.”
A Complicated Situation
The situation seems far more complicated to students and alumni who oppose the name change but recognize and appreciate the financial advantages of a $125 million gift.
“It’s a lot of money,” said Chrissy Pak, a third-year student at the law school who opposes the name change. “There’s a lot of good that it can do for students, low-income students, and the Philadelphia community at large.”
Her unease with the name change is palatable, however.
“My initial reaction was, what’s Carey Law?” said Pak, who is co-president of Penn’s chapter of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, a self-described progressive legal organization with more than 200 student and lawyer chapters in almost every state and on most law school campuses. “Carey Law is just not where I signed up to go.”
The Penn law school name “means a lot,” she said. “It signifies that you’ve worked a very long time to get somewhere … Students felt that was being taken from them.”
Penn administrators apparently got the message.
Ted Ruger, dean of the law school, wrote an open letter to students and alumni on Monday, saying, “We have heard you” and announcing that “the Law School will continue to use Penn Law as our short-form name until the start of the 2022-23 academic year, after which we will use Penn Carey Law, thereby embracing both tradition and transformation.”
He said student response to the name change announcement reflected “how deeply you care about this institution and the abiding affinity you have for it.” But he also seemed to lament “that much of the conversation has centered on concerns over the short-form name, instead of a focus on how the Carey Foundation gift will be used.”
For his part, Carey, the chairman of the foundation, seemed satisfied with the outcome.
"We support the final decision regarding the name of the Law School and are excited to see the positive impact of the gift in the years to come," he wrote.
Asked if the foundation would donate to institutions without being guaranteed naming rights, he gave a qualified answer.
"Yes," he wrote. "However, the Foundation typically aligns with partners to have deep transformative impact."
Seiler, the fundraising expert at the Lilly School, said one way to minimize controversies over naming rights is for universities to seek donors that have similar values to the institutions that will take on their names.
"In fundraising, we’re pretty careful about whom we seek funding from, because they have a brand and we have a brand," he said.
Leslie Lenkowsky, professor emeritus in public affairs and philanthropy at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University at Bloomington, agreed.
“It’s an uneasy relationship of give-and-take,” he said. “The gift is only valuable if the institution they’re giving it to has a good reputation. And the university has to have enough integrity about its own mission to decide what’s in the best interest of the institution while also trying to satisfy the donor’s wishes.”
He said although big naming gifts have sometimes been controversial, they are no longer viewed as unusual.
“The fundraising community will say that in the real world, people want to make these big gifts, and we do want to attach their names to something to encourage this kind of giving,” he said.
“Anonymous gifts used to be more common, but I can’t tell for sure how much giving is still done anonymously. It’s probably a small percentage, and very few are in the high amount range.”
Sweet Briar College, a struggling private women's liberal arts college in Virginia, is a prime example. The college announced on Monday that it had received a $5 million gift from an anonymous donor. The money will be used to offer full and partial tuition scholarships to top student applicants, the announcement said. Two years ago an anonymous donor gave $20 million to support research at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, a specialty hospital affiliated with Harvard University, and another anonymous donor gave Vanderbilt University $10 million for several new residential colleges.
But anonymous giving for large amounts is not necessarily a thing of the past. An anonymous donor gave Massachusetts Institute of Technology $140 million in 2017. The university was allowed to use the money for any purpose administrators saw fit.
And anonymous donors have given gifts ranging from $25 million to $40 million in the recent past. Still, there are far more gifts -- large ones in particular -- that have names attached to them. Michael Bloomberg, who gave Johns Hopkins University $1.8 billion last year -- the largest gift in the history of American higher education -- has several buildings, programs and initiatives named for him at the Baltimore university. His total giving to Hopkins has reached $3.3 billion.
Linda Sugin, associate dean for academic affairs and a professor at Fordham University's School of Law, has argued that public giving that comes with naming rights is a social good.
She presented a research paper on the concept of "competitive philanthropy" last year at the annual conference of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations, in which she argues that "the tax law of charity should focus on the very rich and harness the culture of philanthropy among the elite."
Sugin, who teaches a course on nonprofit organizations and philanthropy, posits that encouraging and celebrating competitive philanthropy would inspire wealthy donors to try to exceed each other's generosity.
"Income inequality today is at a high not seen since the 1920s, and one way the very richest display their wealth is through charitable giving," she wrote in the introduction of the paper, "Competitive Philanthropy: Charitable Naming Rights, Inequality and Social Norms." "Gifts in excess of $100 million are no longer rare, and in return for their mega-gifts, the biggest donors get their names on buildings, an astonishingly valuable benefit that the tax law ignores. The law makes no distinction between a gift of $100 and a gift of $100 million."
For students still learning about the power and complexities of the law, such theoretical issues seem far removed from their present concerns.
Pak, the Penn student leader, said the controversy over the law school renaming, which was done without any student input, revealed the limitations of students' ability to change things.
“It leaves us wondering what say we really have” in the fiscal affairs of the university, she said. “How much influence do students have in how things are funded in higher ed in general? Students aren’t providing the majority of the revenue, so that’s going to have some influence on how much they are heard.”
In the long term, she hopes the infusion of money enhances "the quality of education and the experience" that students are already getting at the law school.
"Whatever name change, we just hope the reputation and the long history of Penn Law is able to carry forward," she said.