What’s in a name: When donors rebrand our universities

Now more than ever, universities are naming their assets after wealthy donors—but it's a trend with heavy risks.

Artist's rendition of the Susan Wakil Health Building, the centrepiece of the new Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery. Artist's rendition of the Susan Wakil Health Building, the centrepiece of the new Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery.

Starting from this year, a nursing or midwifery student at the University of Sydney will have the privilege of studying at the Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery. The School of Nursing announced this name change to recognise a record $35 million donation from property moguls Susan and Isaac Wakil (both AO), provided to support the construction of the University’s new Susan Wakil Health Building on the Camperdown campus.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to USyd: other Australian universities have named assets after significant benefactors. Notably, UTS named the Frank Gehry-designed Chau Chak Wing Building after the Chinese-Australian billionaire property developer, who donated $20 million to fund its construction (Dr Chau also funded the Chau Chak Wing Museum at USyd, to the tune of $15 million).

However, the phenomenon of naming assets, especially university faculties and schools,  after benefactors is much more prevalent in the United States. An aspiring epidemiologist at Harvard would study at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, named after the father of two Hong Kong venture capitalists who in 2014 donated USD $350 million to the then-Harvard School of Public Health. Similarly, after a USD $150 million donation by American business executive Larry Gies in 2017, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is now host to the Gies College of Business. The Gies College of Business is not alone: as of 2015, 80 per cent of American business schools are named after significant donors or benefactors.

Back on home soil, USyd’s policy documents make it clear that there’s the potential, at least, for the American trend to be replicated here. The key document here is the Naming of buildings and other significant physical assets policy, which governs the University’s naming process for buildings (and possibly also the naming of faculties, which the document doesn’t mention explicitly).

Clause 2(d) of the Procedures Document states that “proposals to name in recognition of a benefactor or sponsor must include details of the [benefactor’s donation]”. Clause 4(c) states that “naming is considered in recognition of a benefactor who has made a significant contribution to the capital cost of a new University facility or who supports the University or a faculty with a major endowment”. It also notes that proposals to name assets after benefactors need to reflect “the relativity between the total capital costs of the asset and the level of benefaction made”.

So how do the University’s recent renaming decisions measure up against these policies? Was the Wakils’ gift a “major endowment” exhibiting a high “level of benefaction”?

The University told Honi that the decisions “to name the University of Sydney Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery and the Susan Wakil Health Building were made in honour of Susan’s significant history of giving to nursing.” Certainly, given what is on the public record, the Wakils seem like a philanthropic pair: in 2014, they sold off much of their vast inner-city property portfolio, directing proceeds towards the arts and culture, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Sydney Opera House.

However, the American example shows us that naming university assets — especially faculties and schools — after benefactors has its pitfalls.

In 2015, the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering, colloquially known as ‘Poly’, changed its name to the “NYU Tandon School of Engineering” after a USD $100 million donation from Indian-American businesspeople Chandrika and Ranjon Tandon. Members of the Poly community decried this change, fearing that the removal of ‘Polytechnic’ from the school’s name would damage the institution’s reputation, heritage and brand. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, staff expressed concern over the renaming of the “Gies College of Business”, citing previous scandals at Yale University where a donor had attempted to influence the selection of staff.

Both American examples provide the University with an important lesson. If the University continues to offer naming rights for its schools and other assets to the highest bidder, it could indicate or give off the perception that the University is ready to sacrifice education and academic freedom just to receive donations — i.e. that education is for sale.

This could be a major concern if a donor with ignoble aims comes knocking. Could the University of Sydney Chau Chak Wing Business School become a reality, even though Dr Chau has been caught up in allegations of foreign interference in Australian politics? The University may well say ‘yes’ if the price is right.

Instead of providing the privilege of naming University assets to those who can afford it, the University should recognise prominent alumni or other notable individuals in the broader Australian community. In the past, this has been the University’s standard practice, as a spokesperson noted: “the University has a long history of recognising … prominent alumni through naming” of assets. One recent example of this came in 2012, where the University’s dedicated diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease research facility on the Camperdown campus was named the Charles Perkins Centre, to honour Charles Perkins’ lifetime of service to the Aboriginal and broader Australian community.

Maybe the University could go further. Imagine a primary education student commencing their studies at the Edward Woo School of Education and Social Work, named in honour of Australia’s most famous mathematics teacher. Imagine a future geologist commencing their studies at the Beryl Nashar School of Geosciences, named after the first female dean of science at an Australian university.

If the University went down this path, it would name schools and faculties in a way that embodies the spirit of the work done inside. This would send the signal that instead of figures enticed by the INSPIRED fundraising campaign, the University wants to exalt truly inspiring individuals as examples to follow. Most importantly, it would indicate that donor influence does not dictate the University’s decision making, but that the interests of the University community do — once and for all.