Tuesday, November 03, 2015

"Citigroup College" has a vulgar ring to it

It doesn't sound any better to name the college after Mr. and Mrs. Sandy Weill, the Citigroup billionaires. NPR reported this story. Sandy and Joan Weill wanted to give $20 million to a struggling small college in upstate New York. The one condition was that the college be renamed after them. How modest the rich are!

How did we get here? Colleges are starved for a reason: the college age population is poorer than ever after three decades of declining middle class incomes. Colleges rely more and more on part time professors who are very poorly paid. Many need public assistance to make ends meet. That is poor advertising for the idea of college, and putting a billionaire's name on the college's football jerseys won't erase it.

The tax deduction given for a donation should be less if your “gift” demands naming rights, or if something is named after you. Maybe the naming should cancel the deduction altogether. There are ways of placing a dollar value on the publicity value of naming an institution after oneself. How much do corporate brands pay to put their name on major league venues? They don’t do it out of public spiritedness. They do it for crass reasons of value. If thousands of college football fans wear your name on their chest and more thousands of graduates put your name in the back window of their car, each iteration of this publicity should subtract from your tax deduction. At some point the institution should be able to demand you pony up more money or be free to remove your name. Maybe cash-starved public institutions should publish the petty-minded negotiations the “donors” engaged in over the size of their name and it’s prominence. It would be good to know exactly how starved for attention rich people can be.

The rich people who give generously because they believe in it far outnumber the ones who are greedy for praise. Most who give to their alma mater do so with a sense of humility, recognizing that the names of the people they learned from are far more important than the names of the rich people who paid their salaries. Better still, name the college after a philosopher who influenced centuries of humanity. He or she never got rich from the search for knowledge. Naming a college after a billionaire suggests that wealth accumulation is the best measure of a civilization. That is a bad message to send young people who are going to school. Why worship the few who become rich by keeping the rest of us poor

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