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At IU, a few million gets your name on a building

  • June 6, 2016

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.

It seems there’s no better way for Indiana University to thank donors for gifts than by putting their names on something their money will support.

Over the past two years, donations have resulted in the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, the Ken and Audrey Beckley Studio, the Tavis Smiley Scholarships, the Knauss Family Scholarship, the Mark Cuban Center for Sports Media and Technology, Baier Hall and the Jerome Hall Law Library, just to name a few. The total sum of those donations was about $20 million more than the $23 million E.W. Kelley paid to become the namesake of IU’s Kelley School of Business in 1997.

When Kelley, the chairman of Steak ’n Shake, died six years later at the age of 86, he was still the only individual with his name attached to a school at IU. That would soon change.

In 2005, the IU School of Music was renamed the IU Jacobs School of Music after Barbara Jacobs donated $40.6 million to the school in honor of her late husband, real estate developer David H. Jacobs. Three years after that, a $35 million donation got attorney and entrepreneur Michael Maurer’s name on the sign in front of what was then the IU School of Law.

Donations and subsequent naming accelerated in the fall of 2015 after the announcement of IU’s bicentennial campaign, an effort to raise $2.5 billion by the university’s 200th birthday in 2020. In less than two weeks, IU announced more than $40 million in donations.

David Henry Jacobs, IU alumnus and son of Barbara and David H. Jacobs, helped kick off the campaign with a $20 million gift to the school that already bears his surname. An $8 million gift from cloud computing company ServiceNow founder Fred Luddy got his name on the IU School of Informatics and Computing’s newest building, which is being constructed along Woodlawn Avenue.

A $20 million gift from Conrad T. Prebys got the president of Progress Construction Management’s name on a career services center inside the Kelley School’s Hodge Hall Undergraduate Center. The center was named after alumnus James R. Hodge, who donated $15 million.

“Schools are very good at carving out significant pieces of things to name,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor in IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

While the practice of naming things after donors has become more common at IU over the past few years, it’s nothing new, Lenkowsky said. For example, Carnegie-Mellon University, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Carnegie Medal all bear the name of late 19th century steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie. But there is evidence that the practice of recognizing support predates Carnegie by about 2,000 years.

Lenkowsky said a few years ago he and his wife visited the Rockefeller Museum — named after philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. — in East Jerusalem. To the right of the door to the museum was the Theodotus Stone, a rock with an inscription indicating Theodotus built a synagogue there in the first century A.D.

“The synagogue has long turned to dust, but the donor recognition plaque still exists,” Lenkowsky said.

The naming practice isn’t without criticism. A gift is defined as something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation. If a donor gets a plaque, they’re still getting something in return. Lenkowsky argues, however, there is no such thing as a purely one-sided transaction.

“A gift is not supposed to result in benefits,” he said, “but there’s no way to stop a donor from at least getting a feel-good sensation.”

Most critics are concerned with more tangible benefits. In January, students and a professor in IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs bristled over grant money from the Charles Koch Foundation being used to fund the Political Economy and Environmental Research Initiative at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The initiative is a project within IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Critics questioned what influence the foundation named for Charles Koch, a billionaire known for supporting conservative causes and campaigns that reject mainstream climate science, would have on the initiative’s findings. They pointed to past agreements, like one at Florida State University. There, the Charles Koch Foundation gave the university $1.5 million along with a contract that specified an advisory committee appointed by Koch would screen and sign off on any hires for a program promoting political economy and free enterprise, according to a Tampa Bay Times report.

Charles Koch’s brother David set a precedent that may help address one common criticism associated with naming something after a donor: needing another big cash infusion later.

In 2008, David Koch agreed to contribute $100 million to the renovation of the New York State Theater, now known as the David H Koch Theater. The agreement, however, allows for the theater to be renamed for a new donor after 50 years.

“A naming opportunity should be a defined length of time to allow the institution to regenerate itself with another round of major fund-raising,” Koch told the New York Times.

The ability to rename something as a means of acquiring more funding is one reason more universities seem to be looking at opportunities to sell naming rights. Josh Boyd, a communications professor at Purdue University who has researched naming rights, said over the past 10 years there’s been a big rise in corporate sponsorships at universities.

So far IU hasn’t followed this trend, opting for the more traditional route by agreeing to rename its storied Assembly Hall after IU alumna Cindy Simon Skjodt, who made a $40 million gift for renovations in 2013. Other Big Ten schools have, such as the University of Minnesota with TCF Bank Stadium and the University of Maryland with the Xfinity Center.

Some schools have blurred the line between corporate sponsorships and donations. Ohio State’s Value City Arena at The Jerome Shottenstein Center is named after the late Columbus, Ohio, businessman whose retail empire included Value City Furniture. At Purdue, Marriott Hall is the new home of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management thanks to a $5 million gift from the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation.

“It’s clearly in the interest of Marriott to be looked on with esteem by HTM students,” Boyd said. “It’s still philanthropy, but it’s not the same as naming something after John and Jane Doe.”

While they may allow for more funding opportunities in the future, corporate sponsorships come with their own problems. Sports try to be timeless, with the idea that a championship lasts forever, Boyd said. Universities especially use tradition to market themselves, but renaming a stadium every few decades isn’t an endearing custom.

Some names just don’t sound good, Boyd said, citing Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California, and the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as examples.

“Even in Indianapolis, Lucas Oil Stadium is kind of a clunky name,” he said. “I never understood why it wasn’t Lucas Oil Field, because an oil field is a real thing.”

There can also be image problems. The Houston Astros ended up paying Enron $2.1 million to regain naming rights after a scandal forced the company to file for bankruptcy in 2001.

“When you name something for an aging benefactor or a person who is deceased, you sort of know what you’re getting,” Boyd said. “With a company, you don’t.”

IU still has many unnamed schools and centers. Any new name must ultimately be approved by IU President Michael McRobbie, who works closely with the IU Foundation, Lenkowsky said. They must decide whether a donation or sponsorship is worth the price of association.

“Money talks, but it’s not the only voice talking,” Lenkowsky said.