In light of the soul-searching the nation and University have conducted in its investigation of Woodrow Wilson’s racist legacy, every statue and building name on campus deserves the same examination. It is a privilege to have a building named for you on the hallowed campus of Princeton. Not everyone — not even Woodrow Wilson himself — automatically qualifies. Not by dint of power, political or financial.
As an architect with institutional clients that are dependent on bequests for capital building campaigns, the question of donor naming ethics has repeatedly arisen in our practice. While some gifts are given in the name of saintly community leaders, institutions often have us add multiple design features to entice an additional naming contribution.
Immortalization is the operative concept in the previous sentence. Civic buildings use sturdy materials to ensure they last more than 100 years. Why do donors expect their significant, timely contribution to last beyond the life of the building’s intended purpose? With each remodel, renovation, or expansion, the original gift effectively recedes back into history.
Donors have a right to be recognized for their outstanding gifts, but for how long? To stipulate that a condition for a gift is that its building bear a family name in perpetuity ignores the nature of posterity. Life changes, institutions change, and so must their recognition of generosity. It also ties Princeton’s hands behind its backs when it pursues avenues of expansion, as it does from time to time.
Certain criteria should determine whether or not a donor’s or luminary’s name deserves a place on every Princeton map — and they don’t solely include money given. One is demonstrated character (or alleged criminality, like the Sacklers’ opioid buildings at Harvard) and the other is demonstration over their lifetime of exemplifying Princeton’s values. If a Nobel winner is deemed unworthy of a name on campus, surely cosmetics magnates and Internet commerce tycoons with questionable scruples should be similarly vetted before the University lends its endorsement to the donors’ life’s work.
Why not name campus buildings for valedictorians, USG officers, Theatre Intime founders? Their most likely transgressions are binge drinking on The Street. If they go on to disgrace the University after graduation, a stable of worthy candidates stand poised to land their name on a building on the map.
All that said, maps benefit from stability and predictability the way buildings benefit from stolidity. All the more reason to examine with a fine tooth comb the potential building namesakes before they receive this enormous stamp of approval of their family’s and life’s legacy on Princeton’s glorious campus.
When a donor bequeathed a generous gift, they should not expect a naming plaque in return — they should expect the same sort of scrutiny that all applicants receive when trying to get into the freshman class of Princeton University. It is the ultimate privilege and honor, and we have the chance to rewrite history from the ground up, including our whole community, based on character and ethics.