Sandy Weill is no saint. A billionaire and a titan of the finance industry, he’s landed in hot water for bribing executives and stock analysts. When he was chairman of Citigroup, it had to pay billions to investors after it helped defraud them by playing three-card monte with Enron’s and WorldCom’s finances. To legalize full-service superbanks like Citi, he muscled through Congress a repeal of the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act – a move that, some argue, helped make possible the mortgage crisis that’s forcing millions of Americans out of their homes.
So it’s only natural that the University would name its new public policy building after him.
To be fair, the school itself is named after former President Gerald Ford, the only Michigan alum to reach the Oval Office, and Ford wanted the building to be named for Weill and his wife Joan, both close friends of the president. Ford is a hero here, and “his stamp of approval means a lot,” says Paul Courant, who was provost when the deal went through. Plus, Weill chipped in $5 million to bankroll the project.
It might have been the first time the University named a building for someone after he was caught in a scandal, but it’s nothing new to see a controversial figure’s name printed on campus maps. To take one example, there’s a Ross School of Business building named for Sam Wyly, a Dallas rascal billionaire and University donor who’s under investigation for tax evasion. He and his brother, Charles – they’re often called, no kidding, the “Wyly Coyotes” – are prominent Republican donors who are notorious for funding the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads that sunk John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. Their money is so dirty that John McCain returned $20,000 of it in 2006.
Of course, we shouldn’t concern ourselves with our donors’ politics, and you wouldn’t expect people at the Ross School to care. But inside the more liberal Ford School, where the walls are adorned with plaques celebrating Ford’s other friends who donated – most of them seem to be officials from various Republican administrations – you have to imagine there’s a little chagrin. There’s even a classroom named for Paul O’Neill, the disastrous two-year Treasury secretary under George W. Bush. President Ford was a real Michigan Man, God bless him, but the company he kept will be making new public policy students at Michigan scratch their heads for generations to come.
The more you look at campus buildings’ namesakes, the more you realize how often they come with an ironic back story. Take Alfred Taubman, the University dropout and convicted felon whose $30 million got him naming rights for the College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He’s most notorious for the Sotheby’s price-fixing scheme, which landed him a one-year prison sentence in 2002 and led some to call for the University to rename the college. (Lee Bollinger, the president at the time, demurred.) But to focus on Taubman’s auction-house career is to miss the point – which is that even in 1999, when the University accepted his gift, the Bloomfield Hills native was a dubious namesake for the college.
In his first career, Taubman made a fortune by pioneering and then dominating the shopping-mall industry. That may not seem like much of an offense to most, but to urban planners, it makes him a pariah. Without going into the details too much, urban planning students like relatively dense cities where you can walk most places you need to go. Malls tend to suck people away from urban centers, killing downtown businesses, contributing to sprawl and encouraging an unsustainable “car culture.” At least to the urban planning side, naming the college after Alfred Taubman is a little like naming the Law School after Jesse James.
Another darkly funny case is that of the new Walgreen Drama Center, brought to you by University alum Charles Walgreen Jr., the former president of the Walgreens drug-store chain who died in February. Some were disappointed when the University announced that the Arthur Miller Theater, named for the late playwright who was one of Michigan’s marquee alums, would be housed inside the Walgreen Center rather than the other way around.
It seemed like just another example of the University’s desperation for donors — until last October, when Dale Winling connected the dots in a gleeful post on his blog, Urbanoasis.org. It turns out Walgreen’s father, Charles Sr., ignited a media firestorm in 1935 when he initiated a Communist witch-hunt at the University of Chicago, resulting in a professor’s firing. The story has close parallels to Honors at Dawn, which Miller wrote as a student in 1937, winning him his second Hopwood Award. Even if Miller’s play wasn’t an anti-McCarthyist roman à clef about Walgreen himself, it’s hard to imagine the drama center’s name would be Miller’s first choice.
Stephen Darwall, the director of the LSA Honors Program and a philosophy professor who specializes in ethics, doesn’t see much of a problem with all this. The University needs big-time donors to make up for waning state support, he points out, and it’s unfair to condemn an executive’s entire career for one or two minor slip-ups.
What he would object to, though, is naming buildings, schools and colleges after corporations. That, he says, would lead to questions about the unit’s mission, and it would be a clear sign that the University is being used to advertise a brand. “Corporations are to make money — just by definition,” he says.
That’s not just an academic question. At the University of Iowa, the faculty of the College of Public Health just this month voted down a proposal to take $15 million from Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield in exchange for naming rights. Most were concerned that naming the college after an insurance company would taint its reputation for impartial research.
Could it happen here? There aren’t any rules against it, says Bob Groves, associate vice president for development. But it doesn’t seem likely, he adds: “There would be very serious consideration about how that would reflect on the University.” Besides, you have to think the University would just have better taste than, say, Boise State, which christened the Taco Bell Arena in 2004.
We’re not that far from it, though. It’s worth noting that there are campus buildings named for the owners or founders of eponymous corporations. The Walgreen Center is a pretty innocuous example. Less so is North Campus’s Herbert H. Dow Building, which houses classrooms and laboratories for chemical engineering and other departments. It was a gift from a foundation controlled by the family that founded Dow Chemical Co., which has been a target of campus protest for decades — napalm and Agent Orange in the Vietnam era, dioxin contamination and dodging responsibility for the horrific Bhopal chemical spill more recently. It’s hard to imagine that the Dow family didn’t have the company’s image in mind when it funded that project.
Iowa administrators still want that $15 million for their College of Public Health, and as of press time, they’re seeking a compromise. It turns out Wellmark has a charitable foundation of its own, and the faculty aren’t ruling out “Wellmark Foundation College of Public Health.”
That looks like a face-saving move, since it’s effectively the same as naming the college for the company itself. You’ve still got that perceived-conflict-of-interest problem. But besides that, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. If a human benefactor gets in trouble, you’ve got an awkward situation on your hands; if a corporation or its charity board does, they can purge the directors and no one will remember in a year. And sure, a corporation is a grim machine motivated purely by profit, and it’s only using the school to polish its questionable image. But then, what’s Sandy Weill?