Paul Smith’s College is the only four-year college in the Adirondacks Park in New York State. The college was formed in 1937 with funds bequeathed in the Last Will and Testament of Phelps Smith. The Will stated that the college shall “be forever known” as Paul Smith’s College of Arts and Sciences.” Phelps Smith named the college in honor of his father Paul.
Some 80 years later, struggling for funds like many small colleges, Paul Smith’s College was fortunate to receive a gift offer of $20 million from Joan Weill, the wife of Sanford Weill, a billionaire and philanthropist who has bestowed many large gifts on a number of institutions. One of the conditions of the gift was that the name of the college be changed to “Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College.”
A number of well-known institutions have had their names changed recently as a condition of receiving large gifts. Avery Fisher Hall in New York City is now known as David Geffen Hall. Ahe Miami Art Museum is now known as the Jorge M. Perez Art Museum of Miami-Dade.
The possible name change of Paul Smith’s College upset a number of students, faculty and graduates. Ultimately, they filed a petition with the Supreme Court of Franklin County, and the judge agreed with them.
The law gives great deference to the wishes and directions of a testator in his or her Last Will and Testament. Generally, those wishes and directions will be overturned only if compliance somehow becomes impossible, illegal or impracticable.
Proponents of the name change argued that without it, the college would not receive the promised substantial funding and would face serious financial challenges. The court examined 11 years of the college’s tax returns, which showed surpluses in all but two years. The court also found that the donation was intended to fund a five-year strategic and expansion plan. Based on this, the court found that no evidence had been submitted tending to prove that maintaining that college’s name would be impossible, illegal or impracticable. The college would still be able to function without the name change. Therefore the court disallowed the proposed name change.
As a result, the donors have withdrawn the offer of the donation.
Not every institution bearing the name of a person was named pursuant to the directions contained in a Last Will and Testament. Not every gift will have been made with directions as clear and unambiguous as those in the Will of Phelps Smith. Many institutions will be able to change their names at the behest of major donors. However, as this case shows, that power of philanthropists is not unlimited. In certain circumstances, the name will not be made available to the highest bidder.
Gary Schuster is Senior Counsel with the firm and practices Arts & Entertainment and Business Law. He can be reached by phone at 866-303-9595 toll free or 845-764-9656 and by email.