Philanthropy can be a mixed blessing. At various points in the history of our universities philanthropy has been a vital source of capital and revenue funding. In the UK, however, it declined markedly as a proportion of funding in the period of expansion after 1945 as capital grants were made available from government to support the expansion. Now that it has returned to be a major feature, many are uncomfortable. Peter Scott, in his column in the Guardian, complained – noting an increasing habit of naming buildings after wealthy donors, blaming this on an American influence. But this kind of philanthropy, and the naming of buildings, is as old as the sector.
Take a short walk through Oxford. Start at the Martin School, cross over to the Clarendon building, go past the Sheldonian Theatre, head into the Bodleian and out again into Radcliffe Square, where you can see both the Camera and the Codrington Library at All Souls. If you head out onto the High Street, you’ll find the Rhodes building of Oriel College in front of you. In 400m you have an encapsulation of philanthropy over 500 years. Some donors were very active; Sir Thomas Bodley didn’t just give, he set out to reform. Some of those donors have complex reputations; there is now a campaign to at least critically evaluate how Christopher Codrington and Cecil Rhodes obtained their fortunes.
Or you could visit the main libraries at the University of Leeds. The newest is the Laidlaw library opened in 2015. It is named after the chief donor, Lord Laidlaw but also financed through trusts and individual donors whose names appear on a commemorative wall. The Edward Boyle Library, opened in 1975, was built with UGC funds and is named after a former vice-chancellor. Going further back, the Brotherton Library, opened in 1936, was also a product of philanthropy – funded largely by Lord Brotherton. The Brotherton is approached through the Parkinson building, and therefore pairs up the two main acquisitions from the 1920s appeal for funds by the University. The University of Leeds launched its appeal, judging that the post-war financial situation had stabilised, but then had to contend with the General Strike, the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. It made it in the end. (NB Leeds’s next big appeal was launched before the financial crash of 2007-08 – we should be all wary when they launch another big appeal…)
Universities are returning to the spirit that saw them add both facilities and also endow activities that were common before 1945. That doesn’t make the issue of naming rights any less complex. Universities want to reserve the right to approve names of their buildings. This is relatively simple if the building is to be named after the donor, there is an implicit assumption that the accumulation of great wealth is nearly a sufficient basis for the honour. This isn’t always so – there were many questions about Wafic Saïd, for example. Further complications come when the donor wants to use their ‘rights’ to honour another. So there was further discomfort for some when Saïd provided the money for the Thatcher Business Education Centre. This week has seen the gift of $100 million to the new Cornell Tech in New York. This new institution was the idea of Michael Bloomberg when mayor, and now he has given funds for a residential centre at the site. The building will be The Bloomberg Center – in honor of Emma and Georgina Bloomberg – it is named after his daughters.
Naming buildings after people brings challenges; their reputation can change, and not just through historical interpretation. Donors with buildings named after them have been jailed, leaving another decision for the university: when to remove a name from a building. The commemoration of Edward Hyde, earl of Claredon, in the building made possible by the proceeds of his History of the Rebellion came after his impeachment and death in exile.
Universities need better facilities, and donations can make that possible – Gilbert Sheldon understood that in the 1660s when he funded a theatre for Oxford University. In a time when capital grants are likely to be few and far between, philanthropy offers an opportunity to make a difference.