The Name Game: A $20 Million Offer To This School Comes With Strings Attached

The names Sandy and Joan Weill come up a lot at IP. The billionaire couple's philanthropy is headlined by their tremendous support of Cornell's medical school, which bears their name. While Weill's alma mater, Cornell, has received some $600 million over the years, that's not the only school the couple has supported.

Consider Paul Smith's College, a small private college in upstate New York in the Adirondacks. The school's history is tied deeply to regional icon Apollos “Paul” Smith and his wife, who built the the Adirondacks’ first wilderness resort. Several U.S. presidents and the likes of P.T. Barnum were guests at the hotel in its heyday. The Smiths' son, Phelps, continued the Smith family legacy, and the Paul Smith name came to adorn a railroad, a telephone company, and a local electric company. When Phelps died, he also bequeathed the bulk of his estate to create a college in his father's name.

Fast-forward around three-quarters of a century to a recent announcement that Paul Smith's College is seeking to add Joan Weill to its name in exchange for a $20 million gift. Naming rights, of course, are a common component of philanthropy. Money is given away to a building, program, or even college, which then might be named or renamed. Many times this takes place without much controversy. Other times, skeptics sound off, as is the case here.

Related: The Real Scandal Over the Avery Fisher Hall Renaming

The Weills' $20 million will stay put—for now. The planned change to Joan Weill-Paul Smith's College (quite a ring to it, no?) requires approval by the state board of regents and a county court, which must determine if it breaches the terms of the gift that established Paul Smith's back in 1946. (We've explored some of these legal issues in the past at IP, which are quite complicated, in the our Gift Adviser blog.)

Opponents of the name change have included alums and locals alike. One user on a Facebook group called "Alumni and Friends Against Changing Paul Smiths College's Name" comments, "When someone donates $400 million to Harvard, which just recently happened, did they put their name on the institution? No." Of course, not too long ago, many people were up in arms about that $400 million gift by John Paulson—which, true, didn't change Harvard's name, but did include naming rights for its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Related: Why That $400 Million Harvard Gift Isn’t Completely Crazy

In that case, and in this one, we get the criticism. However, let's play a little devil's advocate, or at the very least talk about some of the things Paul Smith's College got right in cultivating a relationship with the Weills. How, for instance, did this small school come onto the couple's radar?

Well, for starters, the couple is retired and has a home on Upper Saranac Lake in the region. Joan served for 19 years as a Paul Smith's trustee and the couple has given the school nearly $10 million over the past 20 years. Is this on the level of the more than half a billion that the couple has given to Cornell? No. But at a place like Paul Smith's, the Weills' money definitely had great impact. Joan Weill's name is already on the library and student center, both built last decade. The couple has also endowed two scholarships, and the college credits her with spurring it to change from two-year to four-year degree programs in the late 1990s. Joan is currently an emeritus trustee at Paul Smith's.

It's also worth bringing up another name: Paul Smith's College President Cathy Dove, who's cultivated a relationship with the couple. Joan and Dove had a series of conversations, and during one of them, Joan proposed the naming gift offer, which was then approved by the board of trustees. Oh, and by the way, before Dove was at Paul Smith's, she worked at Cornell, and served as vice president of Cornell Tech, so on some level the Weills and Dove have known each other for a while.

So there you have it. Between the Weills having a home close to the college, Joan serving on the board of trustees for years, a history of past giving, and a college president with ties to Cornell, this pending gift, controversy aside, underscores many of the lessons we talk about all the time at IP.