On November 8, 2019, the University of Pennsylvania announced that in recognition of a $125 million gift from the W. P. Carey Foundation, its law school would be named the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and would be officially referred to as “Carey Law,” in short. This announcement was met with swift backlash from students and alumni who, within hours, started an online petition calling for the short-form of the Law School’s name to remain “Penn Law.” Some even demanded to see the agreement with the W. P. Carey Foundation, asked to meet with the Foundation about the name change and use of funds, and even threatened litigation against the Law School.
The reality is that naming rights to institutions of higher education are—and always have been—up for negotiation with donors. At the University of Pennsylvania, we’ve already had the Wharton School, the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, and the Annenberg School for Communication. Even Penn’s Medical School, the oldest in the United States, was renamed the Perelman School of Medicine honoring a $225 million gift by Raymond and Ruth Perelman.
Nonetheless, the Law School’s administrators made a compromise 10 days after the initial announcement. “The Law School will continue to use Penn Law as [its] short-form name until the start of the 2022-23 academic year, after which [it] will use Penn Carey Law, thereby embracing both tradition and transformation,” the Law School’s Dean Ted Ruger wrote to students and alumni.
This change in direction was directly responsive to student and alumni concerns: the short-form name would officially remain “Penn Law” until every current student graduated, and the short-form would include “Penn” even thereafter, honoring the tradition and connection to the University petitioners were so concerned about.
Only at an Ivy League institution would students react to a university’s strategic decision with the sense of entitlement currently on display. During my junior year at the University of Maryland (which happens to be the other university whose law school bears the Carey name), the Board of Regents voted to leave the ACC and join the Big Ten. Unsurprisingly, the move sparked disappointment across campus. Maryland was a founding member of the ACC and we all knew our football program would only embarrass itself against the Big Ten greats like Penn State for years to come. But we didn’t protest the move, contact every alum to garner their anger at the decision, and demand that students be consulted before any major decisions were made. We understood that there was good reason for this decision, even if it didn’t directly benefit us at the time.
There’s no denying that this gift from the W. P. Carey Foundation has the potential to greatly benefit Penn Law and its students. Dean Ruger has made clear that the funds will, at least in part, go towards increasing student financial aid for underrepresented students and supporting those pursuing public interest careers. We have a serious problem in higher education where the institutions offering the greatest opportunity for upward mobility are inaccessible to low-income students. Penn Law has been the top school in the country for new grads’ employment outcomes for years. If simply adding the word “Carey” to our law school’s name allows us to share this opportunity with more talented applicants who would otherwise be unable to afford a Penn Law education, sign me up.