It Costs a Whole Lot to Rename a Harvard Graduate School

A donor gave $350 million to name the School of Public Health after his father.

When Gerald L. Chan’s charitable foundation gave $350 million to Harvard’s School of Public Health this week, the university did something unprecedented: it named the school after his father.

It isn’t easy to get the world’s wealthiest university to name a school for you. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, announced this morning, is the first school at Harvard to carry a name in recognition of a donor’s generosity. Let that contextualize just how big this donation is in the eyes of the university.

Naming rights are a common tool in university fundraising at Harvard and elsewhere, of course, and universities put the names of donors on everything from professorships to restrooms. (At Harvard Law, one can use the Falik Men’s Room thanks to law graduate William Falik’s $100,000 donation.) The names of graduate schools at other universities aren’t off limits. Business schools are particularly prone to naming their schools for big ticket donors. It cost Stephen M. Ross $100 million to rename the University of Michigan business school the Ross School of Business in 2004. David G. Booth gave $300 million to rename the University of Chicago business school the Booth School of Business in 2008.

Harvard, though, has been a particularly stringent holdout. A Harvard spokesman told Businessweek in a 2006 story about naming rights to business schools that the “brand equity” of the Harvard name “is of incalculable value, and we have no intention of abandoning it.” You could probably extend that across all of Harvard schools to understand why they haven’t handed out naming rights before.

The donation will help stabilize the School of Public Health’s finances, which depend more heavily on public and private financing. The Crimson reports how this money will be put to use:

“Julio Frenk, the dean of the School of Public Health, said last week that the money from Morningside will touch all areas of the school’s operations. He focused on four particular threats to public health, including pandemics like Ebola, environmental concerns such as pollution, humanitarian issues like poverty and collateral damage from war and violence, and inefficient systems of healthcare.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you should look to see Harvard’s medical school or its law school being rebranded any time soon. With bigger endowments and more name recognition, those schools would probably command an even higher price. But where those naming rights once seemed priceless, they now just seem really, really, really, really expensive. Paging Bill Gates…