Volume 41, Number 5: September/October 2007

Universities Losing Face

A Sign of the Times?

Naming a building or a street after an individual is one of the most visible ways in which society recognizes outstanding achievements that contribute to the public good. Institutions like hospitals and universities make similar gestures when they name wings or programs after individuals whose careers or financial contributions leave legacies that benefit future generations. Recognition honours such fine role models, and can imbue public places with meaning and a shared sense of history.

In the case of universities, unfortunately, the practice shows signs of being perverted. Increasingly, universities are accepting large donations in exchange for the naming of buildings or programs, and are, in the process, honouring figures whose contribution to society is dubious at best.

In their rush to embrace the corporate culture of competition and growth-for-growth’s-sake, universities are courting these cash-for-recognition donations aggressively. Academic buildings and program names are offered for sale to the highest bidder, even though the pool of candidates able to afford to be so honoured is heavily skewed towards a small segment of society, a segment that does not represent the full spectrum of individuals who ought to be celebrated.

Higher Education, Lower Standards

Even more worrisome, there appears to be no close scrutiny of these benefactors and the business practices that have allowed them to make these large donations – or, rather, recognition purchases. Recently the University of Ottawa named an existing joint law/MBA program after alumnus Jay Hennick, after he “generously” donated $500,000 to the university. The university chose to retain his name and donation despite the fact that the United States National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has found Continental, a subsidiary of Hennick’s FirstService Corporation, guilty of illegally retaliating against employees trying to form a union. What kind of example does this set for students?

This new trend is a travesty of an otherwise heartening human practice. Universities should be honouring individuals who have contributed to the betterment of society – who represent the very finest human values to emulate. Have cutbacks driven us to the point where even a university’s good name is up for sale for the right price, like some rebranded hockey arena?

Permanent ethics committees on sponsorship, donations and dedications, with clear guidelines and student and community representation, must become the norm and not the exception. Inappropriate role models and devalued degrees are no way to engender the public’s trust, quality education, or positive change.

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