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Naming rights and wrongs at the U

It feels a little unseemly to follow a pay-for-placement pattern and practice at an institution of higher learning like the U.

The controversy over the recent announcement that the University of Minnesota is renaming its School of Journalism the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communications in honor of one of its biggest financial backers, the Hubbard family of broadcasting eminence, overlooks a question that should be addressed.

Marshall H. Tanick
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband
Marshall H. Tanick

The dispute has centered on the propriety of extolling a family whose scion, Stanley Hubbard, Jr., has taken a number of regressive stands. Notwithstanding the inestimable contributions made to journalism in many media formats, he has been known for inhospitable treatment of employees, reflected in his disdainful remark that labor unions are “not necessary.” On top of long-held animus to workers, he has more recently joined the climate change deniers, asserting that climate change is “a scam.”

Hubbard has carried out his agenda by putting his money behind his views, using his fortune to bankroll primarily Republican and right-wing candidates and causes, with a slight smattering of bipartisanship and moderation. An irony is that many of those he supports, particularly for state legislative and gubernatorial offices, would wreak havoc on the university through budget cuts, tuition increases, and other ominous overtures.

Naming for largesse

He has the right, of course, to do so, but the unaddressed issue is whether it’s right for the university to bestow what amounts to academic beatification upon the family for its unquestioned generous largesse and contributions to journalism.

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That concern is not exclusive to the current contretemps at the journalism school. Similar to many institutions these days, including those in academia, names of structures, units, or programs are sold to the highest bidder, either individuals or companies. This is well accepted in the private sector, whether having to do with opera halls, museum wings, or stadiums. The economic imperative to do so is understandable and, perhaps, unavoidable.

The Hubbard family earned the sobriquet for the journalism department — located in the building known as Murphy Hall since its inception in 1939 — due to contributions of a whopping $25 million to the university over the years, including $10 million to the journalism program, leading the U to break precedent with its first family-donor naming of an academic facility in its largest unit, the College of Liberal Arts.

But it feels a little unseemly to follow this pay-for-placement pattern and practice at an institution of higher learning like the U. It may be acceptable for sports facilities, such as the school’s football field named for TCF Bank or the women’s complex named after another journalism doyen from St. Paul, Elizabeth Ridder. These are nonacademic structures whose names graced the buildings from their outset.

Other name changes afoot

Other such name changes are afoot. The Athletic Department, in the mist of its massive $190 million “Nothing Short of Greatness” fundraising drive, is about to sell naming rights to the hockey arena, which has been named since its construction in 1993 for John Mariucci, the legendary Gophers hockey coach and “godfather” of amateur hockey in this state.

Barely a long slap shot from the recently rechristened the McNamara Center, an administrative building with social gathering sites, the hockey rink will lose some of its charm when its new appellation denotes a big money contributor, rather than the iconic hockey legend.

With Mariucci soon to be minted for money, can other historic U of M sports sites be far behind? Williams Arena, recalling ironically the school’s pioneering football coach, Dr. Henry Williams, probably can’t survive with that name. Opened in 1928, and the second oldest continuous-use campus site of its kind in the country, the facility with the unique raised floor and, at one time, largest college seating capacity in the land, was originally called the Field House until its name was changed in 1950. With its current nickname of “The Barn,” dating back to halcyon pre-academic-scandal Clem Haskins days of the 1990s, the title of some commercial agriculture-related giant – and there are many of them around here – will probably grace the venerable home of the men’s and women’s basketball teams before too long.

Likewise, the relatively new Siebert Field baseball park, named for coach Dick Siebert, who led the squad to three national championships, should get ready for a new corporate christening, along with renaming of the older Bierman Building, where the Athletic Department administration and various practice and indoor performance sites are situated in honor of the esteemed football coach Bernie Bierman, who garnered five national championships before World War II.

A break from tradition

Despite the rationale for naming new buildings for financial patrons, rebranding of existing structures or programs, particularly those with a distinctly scholarly mission, is another matter. While the financial fortunes it honors and the new contributions it might encourage from others is worthwhile, it marks a break from tradition.

Customarily, these structures and schools within them have been named after former university presidents or other academic dignitaries or public figures like the Humphrey Center, named for long-time Sen. and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, although there are some exceptions — such as the Carlson School of Business honoring the hotel magnate and financial benefactor Curt Carlson.

A break from past practice is not necessarily bad. The building names at the university tend to be those of deceased white males, which is not surprising given the socio-economic-political power structures of the past. If university buildings or units within them are to be renamed, perhaps it’s time to consider women and minorities for their contributions to the institution and the community, rather than those solely from the pocketbook. Or, they could be given titles befitting the disciplines taught there — history, English, law, and the like — which would be bland but not a sell-out to big-money interests degrading the academic atmosphere of the institution. There are some of these already on the grounds of the U, like the Institute of Technology, for example, but they are few and far between and are an endangered species due to financial forces.

As for the Hubbard branding, it’s not that upsetting. After all, the journalism building was named after an individual contributor, William J. Murphy, a Minneapolis newspaper publisher, and that name will remain on the structure, despite renaming the department it houses. So, the U is merely supplementing one high-profile big donor media name for another, and getting a multimillion benefit for it. That’s good business, the type that many at the Carlson Center would applaud.

But the U could have done justice to the Hubbard family and shown its appreciation for its pioneering role in broadcast journalism and its financial largesse in other, less ostentatious ways. An appropriate segment of the facility could take on that name, like an enlarged broadcast-related wing similar to the way the school’s library is named for former journalism student and legendary news reporter and commentator Eric Sevareid. Or, the school could sponsor scholarly seminars under the Hubbard name. How about starting with one on climate change?

The writer is a Twin Cities attorney, a graduate of the journalism school at the University of Minnesota, and a founder and former president of the school’s Alumni Society.


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