Regents OK Paul Smith's College name change

FACEBOOK PHOTOAbout 20 people held a protest on Sunday at Paul Smith's College over the proposed name change.

PAUL SMITHS — The New York State Board of Regents voted today to approve a name change for Paul Smith’s College in order to honor a major benefactress.

The vote came about four days after notice of the plan was shared with students, alumni and the college community.

The regents' approval is pending a final decision in State Supreme Court, which will review the legality of the name change given the school's charter.

The proposed name, Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College, commemorates millions in gifts from Joan and Sanford “Sandy” Weill and would garner another $20 million payment, according to trustees.

The college announcement caught many unawares.

CONFIDENTIAL

The Press-Republican asked Paul Smith’s College President Dr. Cathy Dove about the method and policy involved.

As to whether college trustees reached out to staff, students or alumni in making this decision, “discussions with donors must always be treated with confidentiality,” Dove answered via email.

“The president and trustees are responsible for setting a direction and making decisions that they believe are in the best long-term interest of the school.

"They did not make this decision lightly but firmly believe this is a transformational and necessary next step for the college.”

Dove thanked the Board of Regents for its support on Monday.

"We are hopeful that the court will also agree that our acceptance of the Weill family’s naming gift is appropriate and best for the long-term future of the college," she said in a statement after the vote.

The couple's $20 million gift, she said, "will provide a stabilizing financial foundation for the college.

"It will ensure that we can retain and promote the core values and academic experiences inspired by Phelps Smith’s gift and embodied by our students and faculty since 1946.”

REACTION

Dove was asked whether trustees had expected the dissatisfaction of literally thousands of students, retired staff and alumni.

“We completely understand and respect that the name of a school is an emotional issue and important to its community, and we did expect some to have questions or concerns,” she said.

“We’re gratified by the many people who expressed their support and are taking steps to meet with others to explain our rationale and the importance of this change for the college’s future.”

Paul Smith’s College plans to hold “town meetings” to discuss the issue, regardless of the regents' vote.

Students and alumni have rallied against the proposed change, saying, in many cases, they believe it’s a sellout to the “highest bidder.”

A Facebook group called "Alumni and Friends Against Changing Paul Smiths College's Name" grew in three days to include over 2,500 members.

A protest against the name change, held Sunday at the college, drew about 20 alumni members and students.

Efforts to reach the Weills were unsuccessful on Monday.

STAFF SUPPORT

But others back the college's intention. A group of 30 faculty members from Paul Smith's College issued a statement of support.

In four paragraphs, they said the $20 million gift comes at a time when small colleges across the country "are struggling (and often failing) to survive.

“Our college is now poised to race ahead of the curve,” their missive says.

"'Joan Weill-Paul Smith's College' may be a mouthful when you're used to something else, but we'll get used to it soon enough," the professors said.

"Paul's name is synonymous with entrepreneurship, but Joan is internationally known for providing high-quality educational opportunities for young people who might not otherwise have access to them. That is what we are known for, too. 

"For the last two decades, Joan has worked hard behind the scenes as a trustee and in other ways befriended many of us on campus and promoted the college worldwide, and we consider her to be one of us. 

"The request is not to change our mission or programs but simply to have Joan's name added to Paul's. That seems to us like an appropriate request."

Signatories to the statement of support invited students or alumni with concerns to contact any one of them individually.

RESISTING CHANGE 

Annie Rochon, an assistant professor of classical and modern languages, saw the student and alumni reaction as resistance to change.

“Change can be scary, you know. But all that is changing is the name," she told the Press-Republican.

"We’re not changing the programs, we’re not changing the professors; we’re still going to be 'Smitties.'"

Mrs. Weill's $20 million donation is, Rochon said, "a wonderful gift, and it will benefit the students.

“It’s like we say: It’s all about the experience. Now that students are gaining a better understanding of the bigger picture, they’re starting to come around.”

Rochon helped prepare the statement from faculty, and she said it was not connected or driven by school administration. 

“This came from us, the faculty. It came from our hearts, and it’s just how we feel. In a year from now, people are going to move on, and we’re going to be able to do so many things with this gift and keep this college going.”

PHELPS SMITH’S WILL

Franklin County Supreme Court in Malone received a Verified Petition on the matter from the college on Friday, according to clerk records.

It was submitted to Judge John Ellis on Monday morning. The 37-page document seeks a “Release of Restriction” on a gift and is listed as document index number 2015-597.

The legal discussion will take into consideration the bequest giving the property as a college many years ago by the heirs of Paul Smith.

Phelps Smith's will says specifically: “I give, devise and bequeath all the rest … of my estate, of every name, nature and description … to the corporation herein … to be formed for the erection and maintenance of a college for higher education for boys and girls, to be forever known as ‘Paul Smiths College of Arts and Sciences.'”

NO BRAND CHANGE

Asked what the name change to Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College might do to the well-known college brand, Dove said it “will not change who we are.

“Preserving the essence of the college’s brand is very important to all of us. We are working with all stakeholders — alumni, students, faculty and staff — to ensure that our brand continues to define us effectively going forward,” she said.

Dove said the Weills are not the only major benefactors in the private college’s 80-year history.

“The Weill family has been the college’s largest benefactor by far; we have many other generous supporters,” she said.

Email Kim Smith Dedam:

kdedam@pressrepublican.com

Twitter: @KimDedam

FACULTY SUPPORT

Paul Smith's College faculty members supporting the name change and encouraging students and alumni with questions to contact them are: Alec Abt, Susan Alexander, Michael Beccaria, Mary Ellen Chamberlain, Joe Conto, Karen Edwards, Mike Farrell, Bethany Garretson, Katharine Glenn, David Gotzmer, Sarah J. Hart, Eric Holmlund, Melanie Johnson, Cheryl Joyce, Dan Kelting, Corey Laxson, Diane Litynski, Roxanne McCarty, Brett McLeod, Craig Milewski, Deborah Misik, Pat Pillis, Annie Rochon, Eric Simandle, Gail Sheffield, Lee Ann Sporn, Curt Stager, Anne Sterling, James Tucker, Amy Tuthill and Jeff Walton.

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