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Dollars for Scholars

by David Kirp

When Don Griffin, the chancellor of San Francisco City College, announced a plan to sell naming rights to courses on his campus, the story made national news. The pundits had a field day. How about the Exxon ecology course, they chortled, or the Bernie Madoff finance class? What about Marlboro Human Biology or Seagram's Women's Fitness?

I've got a message for all those snob sisters - get over yourselves. With California's higher education system on the chopping block, Griffin's “dollars for scholars” scheme makes sense.

Buying naming rights is nothing new in academe. Harvard started the trend back in 1639 when it named itself for John Harvard, a clergyman who left 779 pounds (worth about $142,000 today) and 400 books to a school called New College, and now every school in the land does it.

How do you think the William R. Hewlett Teaching Center at Stanford University got its name - and what about the David Packard Electrical Engineering Building or the William Gates Computer Science Building, all perched on the campus ofLeland Stanford Jr. University?

Berkeley has had less luck in roping in 11-figure gifts - still, there's the Haas School of Business and the Richard & Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy, where I teach.

Indeed, seemingly everything in higher education except courses is being branded these days. Senior professors jockey for endowed chairs, lucky students receive endowed scholarships, and campus events begin with a plug for the corporate sponsor. The dean of Berkeley's business school is identified on the school's Web site as “Rich Lyons, Bank of America Dean.” To the best of my knowledge no one has peddled naming rights to a college president, but in these market-driven times it's only a matter of time.

So why did City College get hammered? Mostly out of sheer snobbery. The chancellor was declasse enough to go public, hat in hand, in his search for dollars. And naming is no longer a prerogative reserved for the elite - with a price tag of $6,000 for course-naming rights, you don't have to be a Bill Gates to win public recognition.

Desperate times call for creative measures. At City College, like every public college and university in California, things are truly desperate. (Having just had my UC Berkeley salary reduced by 8 percent, I can speak from experience.) Because of cuts in state support, the community college faces a $20 million budget gap. To save $5 million, it has been forced to cancel nearly 8 percent of its courses. Pony up $6,000, about what a part-time instructor gets paid, and you can keep a class going.

That's a very good deed for community college students, scrambling to get a decent education and a degree. No college should have to pass around the begging bowl in order to teach macroeconomics or computer science. Take it up with the geniuses in Sacramento.

David L. Kirp, James D. Marver professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley, is the author of the upcoming “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools.” This article was originally posted on SF Gate.