July 18th, 2007

Iowa Faculty Reconsider What’s in a Name

By Andy Guess
Inside Higher Ed

Earlier this month, professors at the University of Iowa decided that they’d rather not work at the “Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield College of Public Health” — even if it meant potentially losing a donation of $15 million, which the insurance company’s nonprofit philanthropic arm promptly rescinded.

But it looks like a significant proportion of the university’s faculty members are having second thoughts. At a meeting on Monday morning, they passed another resolution, this time resolving to “move forward and consider this naming gift at a collegiate faculty meeting early in the [2007-8] academic year.”

What the resolution actually means, however, is up for debate. A name change for any reason would have to be approved by the governor-appointed Board of Regents — not the college faculty, dean or even the university’s interim president, Gary Fethke. Still, the university’s governance tends to be collegial and consensus-based, and a faculty vote (like the last one explicitly rejecting a corporate name) can influence those who do have the power of approval.

At least two regents have previously expressed some reservations over naming the college after a corporate donor, which would probably be a first in higher education. While plenty of universities name stadiums, auditoriums or even deanships after companies that make donations, and while many colleges and academic units bear the names of their benefactors, some see christening an entire college with the name of a corporation as a threshold that shouldn’t be crossed.

“It’s not much of an about-face,” Barry R. Greene, the head of the public health college’s Department of Health Management and Policy, said of Monday’s vote. “If you read both resolutions, it means that we’re still interested in options.”

Both resolutions express gratitude for the proposed offer from Wellmark and a willingness to work with the company on naming rights. But while the first one expressly “could not support the naming of the College for an insurance company,” this week’s resolution leaves out the issue entirely, tabling it for a meeting in the fall.

There’s also the fact that the donation, officially from the Wellmark Foundation, is no longer on the table. A spokeswoman for the company, Angela Feig, said she was not aware of any developments since the offer was withdrawn in a July 6 letter from Wellmark CEO John D. Forsyth to the college’s dean, James Merchant. There remains some speculation that the deal could be revived, however, since Fethke, who has been a consistent supporter of the potential name change, was the one who called the faculty meeting on Monday.

“I have had considerable experience in raising private funds, both from individuals and from companies, so I thought my experience and perspective might be of interest to our faculty,” Fethke said in a statement on Tuesday. “Plus, my job is to present the opinions and positions of everyone, balancing those positions against my own experience. And, I’m doing my best to listen. The group yesterday was a thoughtful, articulate group of committed faculty, and I was proud to be in their company.”

The donation from Wellmark was originally solicited directly by the college’s capital campaign committee. After the offer was made, Merchant — a former Wellmark board member — wrote a letter to Forsyth expressing reservations about naming the college after the company. He suggested instead the “John W. and Mary Ann Colloton College of Public Health,” after a Wellmark board member who was also the director of the university’s respected hospital system for years.

Merchant’s letter discussed his reservations about having the insurer’s name associated with the college, arguing that its “academic independence” could — at least in public perception — become compromised. Forsyth’s response, on June 26, argued that there was no difference in principle between allowing corporate names to grace insurer-sponsored conferences and professorships and allowing Wellmark’s name on the College of Public Health.

A faculty member who was present at Monday’s meeting said he believed that there was a strategy behind rescinding the offer and then taking the issue back to the faculty. One possibility tossed around, the professor said, is that the insurer would now settle simply for the “Wellmark College of Public Health,” assuming the faculty could be brought around to the idea. In theory, both parties could argue that the name refers to the foundation and not the insurance company itself.


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