Service of What’s in a Name

November 2nd, 2015

Categories: Bequests, College, Name, Uncategorized, Wills

Hello my name is

You may have read that a state judge ruled that Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks could not change or alter its name to Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. The 1,000 student private college hoped to overturn a 1937 bequest by the son of Paul Smith which stipulated that the college would “be ever known” as Paul Smith’s College of Arts and Sciences. Mrs. Weill, the wife of financier Sanford Weill, was planning to pledge $20 million to secure the name change. She knew about the college because she’d owned a home nearby. 

Paul Smith's College of Arts and Sciences

Paul Smith’s College of Arts and Sciences

“While the college has argued that the stipulation ‘nearly fatally impedes the ability of Paul Smith’s to seek large gifts from a single donor in order to make the investments it needs to remain viable,’ Judge John T. Ellis of State Supreme Court in Franklin County ruled that Weill’s pledge did not give the college license to violate the provision in its founder’s will enshrining his father’s name on the college in perpetuity,” according to Philanthropy News Digest.

“Disputes over naming rights have become more common in recent years and include the transformation of Avery Fisher Hall in New York City into David Geffen Hall and the renaming of the Miami Art Museum as the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum of Miami-Dade. ‘This decision is a big, big deal,’ said Doug White, an adviser to philanthropists and nonprofits who teaches at Columbia University. ‘It’ll help define what the court system thinks of the idea of changing the name of an organization like this.'” 



According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, this year only nine of the top 100 gifts from Americans have been anonymous so Mrs. Weill is in good company. Anonymity, wrote Lorne Manly in “Privacy Matters” in The New York Times, is the choice of those who don’t want to be bothered by others looking for support, don’t like publicity or who believe, as did Maimonides, that such obscurity is a good thing–sixth in the eight levels of giving.

I wrote in an earlier post that promoting a high profile person who gives a large donation helps draw in additional money far better these days than a heart-wrenching story. For this reason, do you believe that the law should be changed to help a small institution like Paul Smith’s modify its name? If your college had a new name, would you care? Is holding to some 78 year old bequest ridiculous? If you were Mrs. Weill would you give the money even if the college can’t modify its name?

Changes coming

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8 Responses to “Service of What’s in a Name”

  1. Lucrezia Said:

    Someone came along and changed the name of my university’s medical school to his own. School benefitted by a $100,000,000 donation. The envisaged arrogance of this individual is annoying, but not enough to discourage donations in the name of medical research along with preparation of top notch doctors.

    Perhaps a future billionaire will come along, and the name will again be changed for the right price plus legal fees. It’s not worth worrying about as long as the quality of instruction and research improves proportionately.

    Why go to pieces should the name of one’s university be changed? It’s a possibility with the right amount of money. It’s the performance of an institution that counts — not its name.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The college in question agrees with you but currently, the law doesn’t and it’s hard to guess what Paul’s son would say if given the choice of keeping open the school with the infusion of money or closing it without.

  3. Martha Takayama Said:

    The selling of recgonition for benevolence really has been transformed into a very simple cash and carry process of social climbing, self-promoting, and egocentricity that also seems more than slightly illegal in a case like Paul Smith’s College in the Adironacks. Whatever Paul Smith’s motivation was, the donation was unequivocally and legally accepeted with the condition that the name remain in perpetuity. Why would MRS. Weill fail to understand that simple term? Why does she think that her fortune entitles her to violate a legal document? Perhaps she has limited understanding of the concept of “in perpetuity,” but given her financial ease she must be privy to advisors who could explain it to her.

    As for all the other needy and greedy institutions or venues, being sold and resold in violation of previous donations, exemplified by Avery Fisher Hall, now David Geffen Hall and the Miami Art Museum, now the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum of Miami-Dade, these decisions with their academic and supposedlybcultural versions of Balkan princedoms, their gauche, tasteless and ultimately extra-legal behavior, speaks for itself. Shouldn’t institutions and organizations touting such lofty values while benefting from inumerable financial benefits set a better example for the public at large?

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Few things attract more attention than secrets. I would imagine that if a person gave a huge sum of money, such as $20 million, anonymously, news would soon leak out, and with social media hounds on alert, far more people would know about the gift to a relatively unknown school than the thousands who attend, and many would raise their glasses.

    But in the brassy, sledgehammer age of Trump, or of Rubio who is praised for verbally thrashing his mentor, Jeb Bush, during the latest debate, subtlety and graciousness no longer fly. They are considered a sign of weakness.

    I admire the judge who, until the law changes, is following it. Money talks and no doubt Mrs. Weill’s will eventually as well, just as Geffen’s and Perez’s did. I wonder why she wouldn’t be satisfied with a building in her name. It wouldn’t help the legal aspect but since her last name begins with a W and Paul’s with an S, it might set better with some who otherwise object to the concept of name changes if hers came second.

  5. hb Said:

    There is an easy way to get this done.

    Mrs. Weill establishes a “new” college, “Weill College” and funds it. Smith College, hopefully not the one in Northampton, declares bankruptcy and sells off its assets. Weil College buys them, and Smith College’s trustees give the sales proceeds, “in memory of Paul Smith,” to Weil College. In gratitude, Weill College elects the Smith College trustees to its board.

    Everybody is happy, except perhaps Paul Smith, and what does he care, he’s dead. After all as Donald Trump would say, “Hey! This is America, who gives a …. about ethics!”

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Pretty clever, if a bit convoluted. Also it’s Smith’s, not Smith, so as not to be confused with the Northhampton school.

    Some people and corporations are persnickety about their names. They want them written and pronounced in a certain way and I think others should respect that. The board of this school doesn’t care and it is up against the law on this one. Maybe Mrs. Weill’s deep pockets can help them out so they can all win: She gets her name plastered on walls, the Internet and stationery and the school gets its $20 big ones. I’ll be curious to learn what happens in the end.

  7. Debby Brown Said:

    Not sure if “in perpetuity” is valid any more. Looking back just 100 years ago, social changes, status, values, generational shifts, etc., not to mention actual dollars, etc. have so dramatically changed. Maybe, those wonderful, big bucks benefactors need to think more altruistically about their endowments and less about their name over the front door. Another thought: going forward, have the laws changed to mandate a time frame that does not include “in perpetuity.”

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    We heard a dinner guest at someone’s party complain that an institution to which she wanted to donate a large chunk of money defined “in perpetuity” as 30 years and she was furious, as she noted that her grandchildren would still be alive in 30 years and she thought this wasn’t a long enough time for the family name to appear on some building or program–don’t recall the details. If she–and others–weren’t so worried about promoting their names and were more focused on the good their support could do as you note, this wouldn’t be an issue. Apart from the obvious tax benefits of donating to 501c3 charities, some see it as “buying something” rather than “giving something.”

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