The cash and controversy behind a name
When students enter the ’70s-themed Norris University Center, they briskly spin through the revolving doors and take the short climb up the steps to the campus Starbucks, also known as “Norbucks.” In their rush, they may miss the rectangular plaque etched in deep bronze, fixed on the white marble wall.
“In memory of Lester J. Norris, Jr., 1925-1967. Norris University Center recognizes his dedication to all aspects of university life.”
But in the next three years, this name will no longer be the focus of student life at Northwestern.
In 1960, at just 35 years old, Lester J. Norris Jr. was the youngest member of Northwestern’s board of trustees. A graduate from class of 1950, Norris, the son of Texaco’s CEO, often mingled with his students, trying to understand their hopes for the future of the campus.
Their dream: A new student center.
The students got their wish, but only after a heart attack killed Norris at just 42. Following his death, the family donated $2.5 million – $16.5 million adjusted for inflation – toward the building named in his honor.
Norris’ parents knew their son had a special bond with Northwestern. “I think it was a strong feeling for his [Lester J. Norris Jr.’s] love of the students and love of the university,” said Lavern Gaynor, the 93-year-old sister of Lester J. Norris Jr.
His daughter called her father a lifelong Wildcat. “[Lester J. Norris Jr.] had a real passion for the school in general,” said Wheeler. “He always kept in touch with everyone there.”
But the Norris Center will soon be replaced by a bigger and more innovative building. This renovated structure that’s 209,000-square-feet, 21 percent bigger than the existing one, will be called The University Commons – unless a donor gives a substantial “naming gift.”
With the new student center, The Office of Alumni Relations and Development Office decided to just leave some form of recognition – perhaps a plaque – inside the new commons to commemorate Norris. The Norris family is content with this process.
“It may initially trouble me,” said Linda Wheeler, Norris’ 65-year-old daughter. “But it’s still the same place, and it’s still the same thought and feeling for whoever comes along and has that ability to give.”
Naming honors motivate donors to give the big bucks. And when an institution sees the need for reconstruction, the only option is to literally tear down the legacy of a family. But what happens when money overpowers the tradition and values of Northwestern’s campus?
Controversy and a whole lot of caution.
Other schools are experiencing similar debates around the naming of buildings. The University of Michigan decided to keep the original name of The Trotter Center because of William Trotter’s celebrated life as a civil rights activist, despite a $3 million donation from Regent Mark Bernstein and his wife, Rachel Bendit. Harvard Law School is even accepting donations to name its bathrooms, after a humorous alumnus William Falik gave $100,000 for its reconstruction and naming rights (yes, Falik).
Back at Northwestern, Gordon and Carole Segal, co-founders of Crate & Barrel, gave $10 million for a parking garage that very much resembles the houseware retail store. Richard Silverman, innovator of the drug Lyrica, a treatment for neuropathic pain and epilepsy, gave a portion of his royalties from the drug’s $1 billion sales to fund a new chemistry research building called (you guessed it) Silverman Hall.
The Alumni Relations and Development Office declined to comment about naming initiatives on campus.
“In philanthropy, there’s an exchange of money for other kinds of things,” said Sarah Nathan, associate director of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “It might be naming rights; it might be community, a sense of belonging, a sense of doing something good in the world.”
But Northwestern has been inconsistent in its naming pursuits. In 1997, 70 years after of the construction of Dyche Stadium, Patrick G. Ryan and his family gave more than $8 million to renovate the entire facility, including the name of the field. While Ryan was a board of trustees chairman and graduate of Northwestern, William Dyche, former vice president and business manager, organized the entire project and constructed the original wooden stands of the football field. He did not donate a dime, but he designed the field. In addition, University records showed that the board of trustees voted to keep the Dyche name regardless of any future renovations, so naturally, his relatives were angry when they saw only a small plaque with the family name at the entrance to the newly christened Ryan field.
Two years after the renaming, uproar still ensued. In 1999, Dyche’s relatives flew a plane with a banner: “Welcome to Dyche Stadium” over the Ryan football field during the season opener and the homecoming matchup.
“We are trying to preserve a tradition,” David Dyche, grandson of William Dyche told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1999. “I will never agree with the University for taking the name off of the stadium.”
But the Ryan Family isn’t in the wrong. “If someone else comes forward, legally, [the University] can do whatever they want,” said Steven Rosenblum, senior director of development at Washington University in St. Louis. “It may make the students upset, so it’s sort of bound into what the original gift agreement was.”
Northwestern’s broken promise to the Dyche family leaves a sore spot, but here’s a revelation: It’s all about the cash.
“Universities are built to be money-losing places,” said Rosenblum. “You know tuition, it's a drop in the bucket. They're reliant on alumni dollars and contributions from donors.”
Even students understand the power of donations. Former ASG president Christina Cilento said that the University wants to be able to expand its physical campus for the students. Money, she said, is the only way.
With the Dyche drama in the past, Northwestern learned to be cautious with naming ventures the hard way.
“[Universities] are being much more careful when people name something,” said Rosenblum. “There's an out-clause that the gift agreement says is for the life of the building,”
Lizz Gunn, assistant director of capital projects at Washington University in St. Louis, said record keeping, gift matching and managing donor expectations are the most important aspects of gift agreements.
Northwestern, like Washington University, upholds these standards. Yet the University Commons still lacks a big donor for the new building.
“The naming rights of higher education have existed since the very beginning,” said Nathan. “I don't think we would have it today without that kind of transformational philanthropy.”
With naming gifts comes rebuilding and with rebuilding comes progress.
“With certain things, change is always good,” said Gaynor. “It’s wonderful the University is growing to such an extent that it needs so much enlargement.”
Norris’ daughter also realizes this necessity. “Change is inevitable. Either you accept it or you can die fighting it,” said Wheeler. “It’s a losing battle. Acceptance. It’s the answer to all of my problems. I have no qualms”
The Norrises, like the Silvermans and the Segals (and maybe, one day, the Dyches), understand that a name only lives as long as the building stands. When the time comes for a physical replacement, the name must also say goodbye.
But it doesn’t mean they want to be forgotten.
“I hope [Lester J. Norris’] name is there somewhere. It can be on a brick in the front step, for all I care,” said Wheeler. “Just keep him there, please.”
Looking out from the thick glass windows of “Norbucks,” students live and breathe the essence of the university. “[Norris Center] is the living room for the campus,” said David Schenk, executive director of Norris. “It is the place where we can connect learning to life.”
A name gives life to a college campus. It connects the old to the new, the bitter to the sweet and the tradition to the progress.
And while “Norris” may fade into the precious archive shelves, the memories squeezing through the food lines, ice skating on the outdoor rink and conversing on the flashy, high top, orange chairs will never be forgotten.
Yes, money is in a name. But the traditions that come with it cannot and will never be bought.