How Important is Your Institution’s Reputation? A Strong Naming Policy Can Help You Protect It

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In February 2013, a South Florida university announced a 12-year, $6 million naming gift to name their football stadium for the company of an alumnus.

The gift itself had all the hallmarks of a very natural extension of a deep relationship: the donor was an alumnus and former chairman of the university, and he had a track record of donating to the university and hiring its Alumni.

There was just one problem.

And it was a big problem.

The donor’s business was owning and operating prisons in North America, Australia, Europe, and South Africa. And, as SBNation reported, “Not only was [this] a company that explicitly makes money off of incarcerating people, a moral quandary of its own, it’s drawn criticism from within that industry for several alleged incidents of widespread inmate mistreatment.”

As could have been anticipated, the public outcry against the naming, the gift, the university, and the donor was swift, loud, and relentless. The stadium naming deal was dropped in April.

Diagnosing the Issue

At the root of this outcry was one fundamental issue: there appeared to be little alignment between the vision and values of a for-profit prison administration company and that of a student-centered institution of higher learning.

Despite having a long and deep relationship, it appeared that the university had not had an initial conversation with the donor about how and where (or if) their values might intersect. The public felt strongly that little or no intersection existed.

Due to this lack of alignment and the significant size of the gift, the announcement looked and felt like it was all about the money.

Avoiding these Situations

How could this have been avoided? What can you, at your own institution, do to mitigate the potential reputational risk of a naming gift going awry?

A strong naming policy can help. Policy itself does not replace judgment nor does it prescribe how to navigate the intricacies of a complex relationship but it does provide a framework and a process to follow when evaluating some of the most significant decisions your institution will make.

A strong naming policy, among many other things, includes processes to formally evaluate the degree of alignment between a donor, the gift, and your institution’s vision, mission and values.

What Needs to be Included in Your Institutional Naming Policy

A strong naming policy typically includes specific guidelines for:

  • A formal review process related to shared values
  • Check-offs related to due diligence on the donor and their assets
  • Securing the organization’s ability to remove the naming in the future should it be discovered that the donor’s values no longer align with the organization
  • Assessment of the alignment between the size and pledge period of the proposed gift and the the specific naming property

Would the outcry around the South Florida gift have been different if the university had formally engaged the donor in seeking an alignment of values? After all, on the face of it, there appears to be very little overlap between the two organizations’ vision and values.

However, if you dig deeper, there may have been a few points of agreement.

What might have been the outcome of an announcement that spoke to the desire of the donor to begin to address the alleged human rights issues with his company through a research partnership with the university, perhaps with a smaller gift and likely not a naming gift? Would the ground have been laid for a future naming gift?

I think it might have.


Join Academic Impressions and Vincent Duckworth online to learn how to develop a naming policy appropriate for your institution. Highlighting real examples from American and Canadian institutions, you will learn the fundamentals of:

  • Differentiating among policies for different naming opportunities
  • Calculating space values
  • Procuring board approval
  • Marketing available opportunities
  • De-naming and naming-length considerations

Learn more here.

You may also be interested in our article “Naming Opportunities: Don’t Miss Them,” featuring Vincent Duckworth’s advice.