Harvard does not normally rename its schools. But last fall, shortly after William F. Lee ’72 was announced as the next Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation, he got a call from an old friend, Gerald L. Chan, who wanted to discuss just that.
The conversation started casually. Lee and Chan, who have known each other for more than 20 years, joked that Harvard now has at least one Chinese graduate who is a billionaire—Chan—and another—Lee—who runs the University’s highest governing body.
“We wondered what the Puritans would think about the whole thing,” Lee told The Crimson with a laugh on Tuesday.
Quickly, though, the two men moved beyond pleasantries. Chan, who inherited money from his late father T. H. Chan and has by most accounts multiplied that wealth since, was upfront with his old friend.
“He raised the possibility of naming the School of Public Health for his father,” Lee remembered on Tuesday. “I told him right away that it was a really interesting possibility, and we ought to talk about it.”
The first person Lee called after hanging up was University President Drew G. Faust—“I wouldn’t call anybody else first,” Lee explained on Tuesday—and quickly, the process was set in motion. The Corporation convened soon after to consider an appropriate price for the renaming of the School of Public Health.
“We discussed what would be the fair amount to name a school like the School of Public Health, and after consulting with the president and the other fellows, we brought [the amount] to Gerald,” Lee said, adding that Chan did not take long to agree in principle to the Corporation’s figure, $350 million. “There was very little negotiation.”
"If anyone is considering a gift at this level or higher, and is proposing naming rights, the Corporation should give it full consideration," University Treasurer Paul J. Finnegan '75 said.
Speaking with The Crimson last week, Faust said that the renaming reflected “a desire to recognize and honor the enormous contribution and generosity that this represents...we feel this is an appropriate recognition of this level of generosity, which is unprecedented.”
By the end of July, Lee said, the deal was done. An announcement was planned for Monday, Sept. 8, when students would be back on campus and Chan, who travels frequently for business, was scheduled to be in Boston. The gift was unveiled during a ceremony at the newly renamed Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, where Chan earned a Ph.D. in the 1970s.
Before Monday, only two Harvard schools had been renamed in its centuries-long history: in 1639, a newly-established college in Cambridge, Mass., took the name of its first benefactor, John Harvard. More than three centuries later, in 1966, the institution renamed its graduate school of public administration in honor of a fallen president, John F. Kennedy ’40.
Going forward, though, Harvard Treasurer Paul J. Finnegan ’75 said the Corporation should be ready to have the renaming conversation again.
“If anyone is considering a gift at this level or higher, and is proposing naming rights, the Corporation should give it full consideration,” he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
JOINING A TREND
With the christening of the T. H. Chan School, Harvard has joined the ranks of institutions around the world that have traded naming rights for philanthropy. In doing so, the University places itself in a movement that philanthropy experts say has become more popular as the race for funding has grown more competitive.
“It certainly [has been] very common in the rest of higher education,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “You can see names on seats at theaters and some schools have gone to the extreme of putting names on bathrooms and bathroom fixtures.”
Of U.S. News & World Report’s top 25 ranked business schools for 2014, only four—those of Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and Yale—do not bear a name adopted in recognition of philanthropy or in honor of an individual.
Currently, Stanford, Yale, and Princeton are Harvard’s only peer institutions to have not renamed any graduate school in recognition of a significant benefactor or other individual. Yet Princeton does not have any professional schools, and administrators at Yale’s School of Management have indicated that they would be open to changing the name, according to a 2006 Businessweek article.
Administrators at Harvard’s business school have previously said they would not be willing to rename the school. David R. Lampe, executive director of marketing and communications at the Business School, told Businessweek at the time, “[Harvard’s] brand equity…is of incalculable value, and we have no intention of abandoning it.”
Experts in philanthropy said this week that they were surprised to hear that Harvard has entered the naming rights game and added that the move signals a paradigm shift in the way the University approaches fundraising.
“I think it makes clear that Harvard weighed the value of tradition against an enormous contribution and decided the contribution was worth it,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “It absolutely sets a precedent when the Business School or the Divinity School or the School of Education are talking to potential big donors in the future. Donors will be aware that Harvard is open to selling naming rights.”
RAISING THE BAR
After news of the record-setting gift broke on Monday, some of Harvard’s top donors made it clear that the sheer size of the gift stands out more than the renaming.
“It’s a total game changer,” said Mitchell L. Dong ’75, an energy entrepreneur and longtime University supporter who is also a member of the University’s prestigious Committee on University Resources. “All the money’s going into the endowment. It’s not current use money, and it’s completely unrestricted. This will be money that will be at [School of Public Health Dean Julio Frenk’s] discretion every year.”
In particular, Dong, who sits on the dean’s council at the School of Public Health, focused on Frenk’s top stated priority: relieving debt burdens for students at the school.
“There’s a lot of alumni who can’t go work in less developed countries at an NGO because they have to pay off a lot of student debt,” Dong said. “This should free them up.”
Peter J. Malkin ’55, a real estate mogul who has been a member of the Board of Overseers and whose family renovated and renamed the Malkin Athletic Center, called the gift “marvelous, well placed, and a lift for the campaign.”
Richard L. Menschel, a graduate of the Business School who gave $12.5 million to the School of Public Health last year, downplayed the renaming. He added that that the size of the gift sets a new high water mark for Harvard fundraising.
“It’s a wonderful gift, and I can’t wait to see what can be done with it, and what can be thrown off every year,” he said, referring to annual dividends from the principal that will flow into the School of Public Health budget. “It sets a new bar. Now of course that doesn’t mean we won’t accept the $100 million gifts any more, but it sets a new bar, and not only for Harvard.”
—Staff writer Amna H. Hashmi contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Christine Y. Cahill can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cycahill16.
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