Written in Stone? Not Quite. Another Interesting Naming Rights Story

In the mid-19th century, George Francis Wilson began the manufacture of chemical products developed by his partner, a Harvard professor. The company became known as the Rumford Chemical Works and ended up giving the Rumford name to the entire surrounding community. One of the successful company’s most recognizable products is Rumford Baking Powder.

In 1872, Wilson was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree by Brown University. Wilson died in 1883 and left a bequest to Brown to endow the Wilson Professorship or to erect a building named Wilson Hall. His $100,000 bequest (about $2.5 million today) was a substantial gift to the university founded a century earlier in 1764. Wilson Hall was dedicated in 1891, and is a Romanesque-style building with the Wilson name carved in stone above the beautiful arched main entrance.

Last month, the university announced that with support of a $24 million gift from the Richard and Susan Friedman Family Foundation, its most heavily trafficked undergraduate academic building will be transformed via a complete interior renovation. Wilson Hall is not just any building on the Brown campus. Brown President Christina Paxson emphasized the significance of Wilson Hall when she indicated that “few buildings on the Brown campus symbolize our commitment to collegiate values… as Wilson Hall does.”  Yet, the memory of George Francis Wilson, once written in stone, will be erased.

Brown’s mission of serving the community by discovering, communicating and preserving knowledge and understanding was truly evidenced by Wilson Hall—a building that was made possible by a successful individual without the help of a Brown education. Both Richard and Susan Friedman are Brown alums, as is their daughter, and Richard is a member of the Brown Corporation Board of Fellows.

Brown recognizes the debt it owes to George F. Wilson. The university has announced that it will continue to honor the legacy of Wilson’s bequest by establishing a professorship in his name. 

I have written frequently about name change cases, some of which were handled properly and some of which were bungled, raising thorny legal issues. While I am pleased at the generosity of the Friedman Family Foundation, I wonder what the philanthropic community thinks of a charity that made a choice in 1883, and over 100 years later, selected the other option offered by the donor.  Is it appropriate to name a building and then change that name years later when a big donor comes along?

A building such as Wilson Hall, centrally located on the Brown campus, has significant importance to the 253-year-old institution. In addition to the comments by President Paxson, the dean of the college, Maud Mandel, has said that Wilson Hall has “symbolic significance to the undergraduate learning experience at Brown.” The university is following a growing trend of renaming buildings in its quest for new capital funding. That understandable need, however, does not supersede the need for the university to follow the appropriate laws and procedures to be able to be released from any constraining terms of George F. Wilson’s 1883 bequest. Let's hope that's what happened. If not, the state AG must get involved to protect the rights of donors—and the future of philanthropy.