Sanford and Joan Weill were all set to give Paul Smith's College, a small, four-year institution nestled in New York's Adirondack Park, a generous $20 million donation. There was only one teeny, tiny catch: Paul Smith's College would have to become Joan Weill-Paul Smith's College.
The billionaire couple had devoted quite a bit of money (and time) to the school prior to deciding on the gift. The New York Times reports:
Mrs. Weill has been actively involved with the college’s development for more than two decades and served on the board of trustees… The Weills have donated $10 million to the college and raised nearly $30 million from other donors, according to court filings. That money was used in part to build a new library and a student center, both of which are named for Mrs. Weill.
The money would have been a boon to the college, which has a relatively small endowment of $27 million and, in 2013, an operating budget of $36.6 million, per the Times.
And college leaders were prepared to make the change. Philip Saunders, chairman of the college's board of trustees, said in a statement, "our Board of Trustees thinks it only fitting that the names of the two most important families in the history of the college—the Smiths and the Weills—should be forever linked to the school and the region they love.”
But that decision was not well-received by some of the college's students and alumni. A "refuse to rename the college" petition posted to Change.org has more than 3,600 signatures. It reads:
You can't put a price tag on tradition. Paul Smith's College should NOT be renamed. Grateful for a hefty monetary donation but not for the ego trip associated with it. To all involved, please reconsider this decision.
Ultimately, however, the decision was in the hands of the state, which refused to grant Paul Smith's the right to change their name.
The New York Times explains that a state court ruled earlier this month that the college must abide by the will of founder Phelps Smith, who said the school must forever be named for his father Paul Smith.
The judge ruled that the school did not make a good enough case for changing its name—the money would be largely used to attract foreign students to the school, a tactic the judge said was not essential to the school's survival. The Times explains:
Justice John T. Ellis of State Supreme Court in Franklin County disagreed. State law says a court can change the rules attached to a charitable gift only if complying with them has become “impossible or impracticable.” After reviewing years of financial records as well as the college’s $30 million revitalization plan, he concluded that the college had not offered enough evidence to prove it would not survive without a name change.
The school said it won't appeal the decision, leaving it up to the Weills to offer the gift unconditionally. They decided not to. Paul Smith's president Cathy Dove told the Times, “when the court turned down our petition, that agreement was no longer valid.”
There is a silver lining to the story, reports North Country Public Radio. Dove told the radio station that “a wonderful family with longstanding ties to the region," offered the college a gift of $5 million. That family chose to remain anonymous.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.