Off the Cuff: August 2008

A recent controversy at the University of Pennsylvania strikes me as one of those things that, the more I think about it, tell us much about the current state of American culture. What happened at Penn has me pondering what we value these days. It’s so bizarre, I don’t think anybody could have made it up. But I’m already getting ahead of myself.

Penn’s Logan Hall, a central gathering place for students, was renamed a couple of months ago. It’s now called Claudia Cohen Hall. James Logan, the hall’s former namesake, was William Penn’s secretary and one of the first trustees of the university; Claudia Cohen was a gossip columnist, dated moguls and senators, and appeared regularly on Regis Philbin’s morning-TV chatfest.

Miss Cohen was also once married to Ron Perelman, the Revlon business whiz and Penn alum who gave the school $20 million in 1995. Now, you don’t part with that kind of money without getting something in return, which in this case was the right to rename Logan Hall. Claudia Cohen died of ovarian cancer last year, and even though she and Perelman had been divorced for more than a decade, he deemed that her name would grace the building abutting the main square that has been known, for several years now, as Perelman Quadrangle.

My intention here is not to take Mr. Perelman’s generosity to task, nor to besmirch the memory of his ex-wife, who also graduated from Penn. I do have a question, however: What was Penn thinking? The obvious answer — 20 million dollars! — is only part of the explanation. As soon as you start to question whether it is classless or tacky or just plain wrong to slap the name of the New York Post’s Page Six editor and onetime girlfriend of Senator Alfonse D’Amato on a hallowed hall at an Ivy League university, you begin to wonder if there is any shame at all left. How can the University of Pennsylvania, which counts an American president (William Henry Harrison), two Supreme Court justices, eight signers of the Declaration of Independence, and 11 signers of the Constitution as alumni, be complicit in this? Which begs another question: Is everything for sale?

This is where the fun begins, because the answer is a wild ride through the break-out-your-checkbook-and-get-your-name-in-lights festival that American culture has become.

Our desire to gain some measure of notoriety has gone far beyond the Ron Perelmans and Sidney Kimmels donating tens of millions in order to ensure that their names are on buildings. At Penn State, for example, well-heeled boosters attach their names to positions on a sports team for $300,000 a pop; USC’s pep squad Song Girls can be sponsored for a mere $1,900 each. (No, I’m not making this up.) Many schools slap prices on naming options as if they’re items at Walmart: gyms (the going rate: $100,000), principals’ offices ($10,000 to $750,000), lunchrooms and assembly halls ($100,000), and so on. There is, however, some risk: The University of Missouri has had to rethink the endowment for the Ken Lay Chair in Economics after the Enron collapse. At Villanova, the DuPont Pavilion became just the “Pavilion” after its moneybags, John du Pont, murdered an Olympic wrestler.

And it’s not just schools. In Las Vegas, you can buy the rights to a monorail station ($2 million to $4 million); Sun City, Arizona, is hoping to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars by allowing people to name streets after themselves; a town near the Snake River in Oregon changed its name from Halfway to ­, because that wordplay garnered $100,000 and 20 computers.  

I wonder: Would Ron Perelman, Sidney Kimmel and others even donate their money if the self-effacing ethos of past times still survived? That is, if people gave away their millions because they merely thought they could make the world a better place, even if nobody knew about it? My, how old-fashioned that sounds.