Renaming of Adirondack college stirs emotional protests

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Posted: Sep 13, 2015 11:36 AM
Renaming of Adirondack college stirs emotional protests

PAUL SMITHS, N.Y. (AP) — Paul Smith's College already has the Joan Weill Adirondack Library and the Joan Weill Student Center thanks to the largesse of the wife of a Wall Street billionaire. Now, for just $20 million, she can have her name on the whole place.

The agreement to rechristen the tiny school in the mountains of northern New York as Joan Weill-Paul Smith's College has drawn the ire of alumni — "Smitties," as they call themselves — who say the deal sets a bad precedent for charitable giving.

"It shows a complete lack of integrity," said Scott van Laer, a forest ranger and 1993 graduate who filed a brief opposing the school's legal bid to go against the will of the school's founder. "It's not a stadium where you can renegotiate naming rights."

Now, the opponents are awaiting a state Supreme Court judge's decision on the will of J. Phelps Smith, which decreed that the school shall "forever known as Paul Smith's College of Arts and Sciences" to honor his father, whose hotel had stood on the campus's lakeside site. The decision could come any day.

Alumni dismayed at the board's announcement it would rename the school for the wife of Sanford Weill, the retired chairman of Citigroup, signed an online and paper petitions opposing the change and flooded the local paper, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, with angry letters. About 300 current students have also signed a petition against the naming deal.

Van Laer filed a court brief outlining numerous reasons to reject the name change, ranging from devaluing the degrees of alumni to sowing mistrust among future donors.

"No donor will ever be assured that someone else will not come along in the future and seek another name change for money," the brief said.

The judge rejected van Laer's brief on Friday, saying he had no standing in the case.

Doug White, who teaches fundraising management at Columbia University and is an adviser to nonprofits and philanthropists, said the lesson for charities is that no gift agreement written today should include the words "forever" or "in perpetuity," because that could limit the recipient's options if future circumstances change.

White, who said he's unaware of any case where a college named for its original benefactor added a new donor to its name, said more discussion beforehand with interested parties might have helped avoid the current outrage.

"But ill will can be short-lived, and trustees have to take into account the long-term issues — such as survival," White said.

Paul Smith's College, with its picturesque campus surrounded by six million acres of forested mountains in Adirondack Park, is known for its hands-on style of education, including scientific field work and old-time lumberjack skills like log-rolling, tree-climbing and buck-sawing. Resort and culinary arts students hone their skills at two upscale on-campus public restaurants.

Joan Weill has been actively involved with the school for two decades, since she and her husband bought a summer home nearby. The couple has donated millions themselves and helped raise millions more. During the 19 years Joan Weill served on the college's board, the school grew from a two-year to a four-year institution.

"She's the kind of philanthropist that doesn't just give money but gets personally involved," Paul Smith's President Cathy Dove told The Associated Press. "She puts her heart and soul into it."

Weill did not return a call seeking comment.

The school's namesake, Appolos "Paul" Smith, was certainly no stranger to the rich and powerful. The hotel he founded in 1859 on the shores of Lower St. Regis Lake was patronized by the celebrities and power elite of the day — as well as presidents Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge — before it was destroyed by fire in 1930. His son left much of his estate — in a town already named for his father — to the foundation of the school.

Today, the family has no close descendants. The state attorney general's office, which represents the interests of heirs in such cases, told the court it had no objection to the name change.

Dove, who became the college's first female president last summer in the wake of cost-cutting layoffs of 12 percent of staff, said the $20 million Weill has pledged is critical to the school's future. And the addition of Weill's name will add international cachet that will attract more donations and help build enrollment, which is currently around 1,000, Dove said.

"This is a transformational gift for a college of our size," Dove said, adding that the current endowment is about $25 million.

Dove said Weill's donation will help the school expand programs, provide financial support to students, and promote itself beyond the Northeast.

"My strong belief is that over time people are going to recognize this as a positive asset for our future," Dove said. "It will strengthen us in a way that will benefit the entire region."

In fact, there is support for the name change among faculty and staff concerned for their jobs.

"Having endured painful cuts in faculty and staff positions last year, we see the Weills' gift as a game-changer," a group of 32 faculty members wrote in a letter published on the college's website.

But van Laer said the name change makes little sense to him.

"This is a small, niche school that's made up of a lot of blue collar type alumni; we're your teachers, your chefs, your forest rangers and police officers," van Laer said. "The Weill name and the Paul Smith's name are contradictory, they don't fit well together."