From mortar to moniker

From mortar to moniker McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 30, 2003 - Volume 35 Number 09
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Illustration of McGill buildings and their names

From mortar to moniker

A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, as the saying goes. On the other hand, had this institution been founded through a donation from the Outhouse family, would McGill's well-deserved international reputation still be what it is today? And what would the letterhead look like were our fur-trading founder a Czetwertynski?

With 10,000 pounds and the land for the downtown campus, James McGill established a legacy that continues to this day -- a legacy that still carries his name. Tobacco magnate Sir William Macdonald earned his place in perpetuity with his gifts that established the Macdonald engineering building and later, the Macdonald campus. However, the Leacock building was named in honour of that famed wit with no money down and the Shatner building... well let's not talk about the Shatner building. The names at McGill are a reflection of the university's history, and as worthy Scots are joined by Wongs, Bellinis and Trottiers, they are an indicator of our ever-changing present.

The unlimited power to name things was one of the first tasks God gave to Adam according to the Bible. It's a little more complicated here.

Derek Drummond, vice-principal (development and alumni relations), explained that there are generally two ways in which a McGill building or facility gets a name.

"It can be named after a long-time servant of the university -- those are the names where the university decides to honour their own," he said. Examples of this include the Leacock and Rutherford buildings.

"The other is after the donor of the building or of a significant portion of the building, and that is much more common."

There are plenty of things that carry names at McGill beyond buildings: scholarships, chairs, classrooms, auditoriums -- even trees. There are certain rules associated with the process.

"Generally the donor must give half the private support that was garnered to build the building," explained Drummond. Even then, "naming rights" aren't absolute either. Any proposed name first must go through the Senate Toponomy Subcommittee, on which Drummond sits. It is then referred to the Senate Committee on Physical Development. The final decision rests with the executive of the Board of Governors.

"There's always a questions of whether we use the middle initial, maybe the name is a bit clumsy -- we refine. You're always looking out for unfortunate nicknames. Dr. Frost, the university's longtime historian, gives a tremendous perspective as to the importance of historic figures," said Drummond.

Often buildings aren't officially named until late into their design and building process. The planned music building for the faculty of music is in the construction equivalent of "John Doe."

"McGill is entering into all of these new building projects, which is very exciting. You have the Trottier IT building, and you have the Bellini Life Sciences building, and you have the 'new' music building. The problem is there is no Mr. or Mrs. 'New,'" said Dean of Music Don McLean.

The music building -- which will hold the music library and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT) -- presents some amazing opportunities for naming.

"We've got one of the most important architectural projects in the modern era at McGill. It's the eastern portal to the university; it's on Sherbrooke street; it's adjacent to the historic Strathcona building with Queen Victoria out front," explained McLean.

Not only that, but the music school already gets national exposure thanks to the weekly CBC broadcasts from Pollack Hall. The new building will have even greater exposure.

"We're talking right now with Japan NHK (a television station), and they're very interested in setting up in CIRMMT. We're developing a partnership with NHK and one possibility is that they will do a broadcast from the CIRMMT facility to the World's Fair in Tokyo in 2005. Whatever this is named, this building is going to be on the world stage," said McLean.

Given the music school's "high culture" products -- jazz, opera and classical music -- one might think that the school might be a little wary of accepting a name that is, shall we say, a little down market. What if, for instance, McConnell and Macdonald buildings were joined by Mick Jagger?

"The reputation of the school is based on knowledge of the program. But it wouldn't be the Mick Jagger School of Music, it would be the Mick Jagger Pavilion."

Entire faculties have renamed themselves at other universities -- especially business schools. In Canada, University of Toronto has the Rotman School of Management, while Concordia has the John Molson School of Business. Dean of Management Gerald Ross explained that business schools have different identity concerns than other faculties at a university.

"The position of each business school is quite different. In some cases the name of the university predominates over the business school. For example, at Harvard, it's actually the Baker School, but no one's ever heard of it because the name of Harvard is much stronger than any individual's could ever be. If you took the other end of the scale, with the Wharton School, very few people know it's at the University of Pennsylvania.

"The strategy at McGill, because McGill is a very strong brand, is closer to the MIT-Sloan school where the two names work together," he said.

Ross said that there is "no hurry" to rename the school, and doing so is a tricky process. Company names are dangerous: "What if we had accepted money from Enron five years ago?" A donor's reputation needs to be sterling as well -- "there are lots of people that are robber barons that we wouldn't want. After a while, the money would be spent, but you'd still have the name.

"The faculty of management at McGill is the last Ivy-type school that is un-named. We don't want to give it away."

The cost of naming a school has to be proportional as well. Forty million dollars is a not an unreasonable expectation, which sounds like a lot. In fact, the money would be endowed, meaning it would pay roughly five per cent a year -- $2 million annually.

Determining the worth of these kinds of gifts is one of the concerns of Tom Thompson, deputy director of development at Martlet House. The numbers attached to gifts like endowed chairs and scholarships have to change with the times. As the groundwork is laid for a new capital campaign, juggling numbers is the name of the game.

"Is $2 million what we need to endow a named chair? To this point, we've recommended $2 million," he said, adding, "this is my fifth campaign... what we thought was a valid figure for a named chair in the earliest campaign was four or five hundred thousand. So it has to be reassessed."

Going even further back, Thompson pointed out that McGill's oldest endowed chair -- the Molson Chair in English -- was endowed with $1000 in 1857. It pays $72,000 annually now.

Thompson said that naming a chair or building is usually low down on the reasons why people give to McGill.

"Naming isn't the starting point -- interest in the project is," he said. Former students will often give gifts because of their positive experiences here. Others give to improve what they felt needed improvement. One former student has anonymously funded tutorials for students with learning disabilities -- for which there was no accommodation when he attended in the 1950s. The Winsor sports clinic came about from former football player Bob Winsor's desire to improve medical assistance for athletes from the fairly primitive treatment that was available in his playing days in the 1960s.

Even if naming isn't important to the donors, it is to the university, said Thompson.

"If we want to increase the private support, then students, faculty, staff and friends of the university should be aware that many have gone before. As Stephen Leacock said: 'The second-oldest tradition at McGill is to run a deficit.' Happily, the oldest tradition is to have a major gift -- that of James McGill."

Naming isn't without controversies. There is always concern that a gift comes with strings attached that would affect the academic mission of the institution. Often there are concerns when money comes from tobacco companies or companies with suspect labour practices. About ten years ago, McGill went through a controversy of its own. Here's a hint: it was an Enterprise on which the university would not boldly go.

"That is not the legal name of the building, and the administration will never call it that," said Drummond of the University Centre, a.k.a. the Shatner building. Showing no appreciation for the myriad times that William Shatner saved humankind from Klingon invasions, Drummond said: "He's hardly our most famous graduate, and there are McGill graduates that are more significant contributors to the world than Shatner."

In addition to being vice-principal, Drummond is also an architect. Does the name of a building have any impact on its design?

"No, not really. Only the mundane idea of where you put the sign."

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