Thursday, March 4, 2010

Naming Campus Buildings after Alumni

Chico State's O'Connell Technology Center.

George Mason University, where I attend grad school, seems to have more than its fair share of buildings with generic names: College Hall, East Building, Engineering Building, Fine Arts Building, Lecture Hall, Performing Arts Building, Student Union I, Student Union II, and West Building (see the campus map).

Compare this to California State University, Chico, where I went for undergrad (map). There is a Performing Arts Center and a Physical Sciences Building (where, oddly, I once had a Spanish class), but the other buildings are named for alumni or nearby counties.

The difference is probably due to the age of each school. Chico State is the second-oldest CSU campus, established in 1887. GMU was established as part of the University of Virginia in 1957 and became independent in 1972. Although Chico State today has roughly half the student population of GMU, it has several times as many alumni (living or dead).

If someone were to construct a model for optimal timing for the naming of buildings, what would it entail? Certainly it would factor in the number of noteworthy alumni and the number of campus buildings over time. The alumni base grows every year, and the number of campus buildings is growing at most universities, but it's hard to predict the rates and accelerations of either decades into the future.

The university doesn't want to name all of its buildings after alumni too quickly, as the accomplishments of future alumni may be far grander. But at any point, the university can sell the naming rights, so to speak, by offering to name a building after a graduate upon receiving a sizable donation (though of course not all namings are conditional on a donation). Although the university may be better off in the long run if it paces itself, in any given year, there's a temptation to name all the buildings and reap the donation windfall now. This is "mortgaging the future" in a sense, as buildings named now can't be named later (unless new buildings are constructed, and one could argue that the university could always find something to name after a large donor). This instant gratification is functionally the same as how Indiana leased the rights to a foreign firm to collect highway tolls for 75 years in exchange for a hefty one-time payment.

What are the drawbacks of naming buildings after alumni? First, constantly renaming the buildings at your school can lead to confusion, but the students are coming and going so frequently that it probably doesn't matter much. There's something to be said for having a name that represents the building's function, like the Technology Center, but why not make it the O'Connell Technology Center (as it is at Chico State)? Of course, naming buildings after living people runs the risk of the person ending up in an embarrassing scandal; although this isn't the perfect analogy, remember that the Houston Astros once played at Enron Field.

Incidentally, GMU already has a Finley Hall, so it won't be an issue for me if I become wildly rich and successful (not that I'm holding my breath).