The scene: A high-school senior waits anxiously by her family’s mailbox. After several minutes, a mail truck pulls up, and an older man hands her a large envelope. She tears it open, pulls out a piece of paper and screams.
“Mom! I did it! I’ve been accepted into Bienen!”
“Oh honey! I’m so excited — I’m finally a Bienen mom!”
As bizarre as it seems, the scene above may not be so strange in the coming years. With the announcement on Tuesday that soon-to-be-ex President Henry Bienen’s name (along with his wife’s name, Leigh) will grace the School of Music, he’s guaranteed to be a Northwestern fixture until somebody donates a ton of money to have their name adorn the school. Northwestern clearly values Bienen highly, as the name of every other Northwestern school has been earned with million-dollar donations, not mere service.
But the decision to honor Bienen via naming rights won’t immortalize the man or his accomplishments. Many of Northwestern’s presidents have been honored in some physical manner — Foster, Noyes, Scott — but nobody reminisces on the men themselves.
One day soon, when students see a new face delivering the convocation, the word Bienen will become common. Like with McCormick and Medill, students will complain about their Bienen classes and the new Bienen dean. They’ll vote on the new Bienen t-shirt design, and go to Bienen-sponsored lectures. Bienen undergrads will debate about who the best Bienen professors are when it’s time to pick new Bienen classes. By then, Bienen’s name, like the names of his predecessors’, will have become a staple of the Northwestern lexicon, but his history will have been sacrificed as a result.
Naming the School of Music after Bienen is a good gesture and does ensure Bienen’s name will live on for a long time at Northwestern. But Bienen — the president and all of his accomplishments — will be forgotten. Because all that matters to that high school senior is the name on the sweatshirt, not the significance behind it.
Clarification — May 15, 2008: The article originally suggested that Harris Hall was named for Northwestern’s eighth president. It was actually named for Norman W. Harris, a Chicago banker and Northwestern benefactor. Thanks to Kevin B. Leonard of University Archives for the clarification.