What's In a Name? Often A Lot Of Baggage

Stadium employees remove letters from one of the Enron Field signs March 21, 2002 in Houston, TX. The Houston Astros paid $2.1 million to get back the naming rights to their stadium from collasped energy trader Enron.
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Former Ohio congressman Bob Ney was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison Friday for his role in a Capitol Hill bribery scandal. His name came back into the news just a few weeks after it came off an Ohio University building named for him.

The phenomenon of naming institutions and buildings after individuals may have begun at Harvard University. John Harvard's bequest of 400 books and 780 English pounds wasn't quite a king's ransom in 1638. But it did forever link his name to the nation's most prestigious university.

In Europe, university names usually honored those of a higher calling, from saints like St. Andrew in Scotland, to sovereigns like King Charles in Prague. Naming Harvard "Harvard" was a very "New World" notion. It is a notion that has grown to become a time-honored tradition.

"One of the things about naming buildings in higher education is that there's an awful long history of associating names with people who have contributed great things to society through public service or through other means," president of Ohio University, Roderick McDavis told Sunday Morning correspondent Joie Chen.

Still, thanks to John Harvard's charitable legacy, we inherited the belief that esteem and honor can be purchased, a legacy etched in stone. Take the example of James Smithson. He was the illegitimate son of English nobility, and was a chemist and geologist — and very rich.

Smithson never even set foot on American soil, but he willed his entire estate to establish an institution of research and learning in his name. And today, Americans come to Washington in droves to see Smithson's legacy: the Smithsonian Institution.

Naming rights have become a proud — if showy — American tradition and a very big business. But not everyone is sold. Many people are not happy about the University of Phoenix stadium where the Arizona Cardinals play. The University of Phoenix is an Internet-based university that paid more than $150 million to put its name on the new stadium.

If the stadium is sold out, you might be able to catch the game on TV in Dish, Tex., a town which got its name when the Dish network offered free service to any community that agreed to rename itself "Dish." The town of Clark, located an hour north of Fort Worth, took them up on it.

Some species are even for sale: The callicebus aureipalattii, also known as the Goldenpalace.com monkey, named for an Internet company that shelled out $650,000 to own the name of the species. The money will be used to protect its habitat.

Still it's important to shop around, which is to say, sometimes folks who play the name game can strike out. Take the Astros' stadium in Houston: In 1999 the team sold the building's identity for $100 million only to later discover that playing in the Enron Stadium was not in the best taste. Now it is called Minute-Maid Park.

Villanova University's famous basketball program was housed in the DuPont Pavillion until John DuPont, heir to the chemical fortune, killed Olympic wrestler David Schultz in a schizophrenic rage.

More recently, Seton Hall University in New Jersey found itself in the awkward position of having its business school housed in Kozlowski Hall (as in Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of Tyco who looted a $500 million from his company). The building has been renamed Jubilee Hall.

Ethicist Jeffrey Seglin says that for all kinds of reasons the name game is risky business.

"It raises the larger question of how do public institutions make these decisions that could come back to haunt them later?" Seglin said. "They should know who they're getting in bed with. And I think that if they're going to place their name so prominently on a building, I think they need to know that. Because what ends up happening, that becomes a reflection of the university."

Which brings us to the case of Roger Blackwell, a former Ohio State professor and marketing guru. He made a fortune as a business consultant and wrote several successful textbooks. Blackwell donated seven million dollars to OSU, which named a hotel on campus in his honor. That was before Blackwell was convicted on charges of insider trading.

"You have to think about, are these the values we want to have our students aspire to — and does that send a message? I think those are questions that they have to ask for themselves and decide," Seglin said.

"I think there is always a risk involved when you put the name of a living person on a building," McDavis said.

The Ohio University board removed Ney's name from the school's recreational center after the former Congressman pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

"Certainly I think this experience with us has led me to the point of wanting to reconsider how we go about putting the name on a building," McDavis said.

As the university decides just what to rename the Ney Center, McDavis says one option is off the table:

"I don't have any ambition to have a building named after me," he said. "I'm perfectly happy not having my name on anything but a check."