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Published May 19 2012

Corporate cash fuels campus projects

FARGO – For nearly 50 years, the Stevens Auditorium at North Dakota State University was named after a renowned botanist and longtime professor.

After an upcoming renovation project, it’ll be named after Gate City Bank – a high-profile sign of the growing importance of corporate money as colleges and universities try to make ends meet.

The bank, which donated $500,000 for the project, isn’t the first corporation to make its mark on campus. A number of rooms in Barry Hall, which opened in 2009, are named after donors such as Eide Bailly and U.S. Bank.

Altogether, about a dozen spaces on campus have corporate names. The corresponding donors gave about $28.1 million to the university. By comparison, the university secured about $30 million in gifts and pledges in its last fiscal year.

The auditorium, a heavily used lecture hall with its own marker on the campus map and listing in the building directory, is perhaps the most visible academic space of the bunch.

The renaming won’t wipe O.A. Stevens out of the picture – the university considers the auditorium part of nearby Stevens Hall, not its own building. But NDSU President Dean Bresciani said it’s indicative of a national trend in higher education in which corporate sponsorship is more important – and accepted – than ever before.

Naming buildings after prominent individuals is as old as the concept of honoring people itself, he said. And naming them after private donors is nothing new, either.

But as universities try to cope with rising costs and lagging state support, they’ve broken new ground in granting naming rights to corporate sponsors.

“It’s a financial reality,” Bresciani said. “Whether it’s commendable or not, it’s a necessity.”

He said the practice, prevalent on some campuses nationally, is still new to NDSU. He said the sponsors the university has secured to date are sincerely interested in helping the university, and haven’t crossed any lines in carving a presence on campus.

“They’re not being over the top or obnoxious in any way,” Bresciani said. “I think we’re doing it the right way.”

Jim Miller, executive director of the NDSU Development Foundation, called the Gate City Bank sponsorship “a great deal” for the university.

“It’s a way of offsetting costs with private contributions,” he said. “It gets down to how do we acknowledge their gift? The more obvious way is to let them put their name on a building or a room.”

On some campuses, naming rights come with formal terms and expiration dates. Miller said NDSU’s policy is designed to be more honorary and less transactional.

“We’ve basically said as long as the building is standing, your name will be on it,” he said.

He said his office has heard no complaints about corporate sponsorship.

Bresciani said the university isn’t looking to name spaces on campus after anyone with a big check. If a donor was out of line with the university’s mission and values, he said, NDSU wouldn’t take the money.

“If a strip joint wanted to name a classroom and said, ‘We’ll give you $1 million,’ that’s a non-starter,” he said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502