What's in a name? About £30m

Cambridge college New Hall is renaming itself after a generous benefactor - but is this really sensible?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

New Hall, the women-only Cambridge college, is to rename itself Murray Edwards College after receiving a £30m donation. The gift, among the largest ever to a British university, was made by New Hall alumnus Ros Edwards and her husband Steve, whose name has been adopted by the college alongside that of its founder Dame Rosemary Murray.  The Edwards’ – who sold their IT consultancy Geneva Technology to US giant Convergys for $700m in 2001 – hope their cash will help Cambridge keep up with the challenge from hugely well-endowed US Ivy League schools.

Of course, buying the rights to have your name over the hallowed partico of an Oxbridge college – even a post-war, municipal brutalist-style one like New Hall - is bound to cause something of a stir in the notoriously fusty groves of academe. So the college PR is cleverly claiming that the deal simply marks the end of the search for a suitably generous benefactor which has been going on since the college was founded back in 1954. The name New Hall, you understand, was only ever an ‘interim’ measure. OK, if you say so...

Home-grown rival Oxford - the oldest university in the English speaking world, lest we forget - is also keen not to be left out of any race to keep up with those upstart US competitors. It has just received a whopping £25m hand-out from alumnus Michael Moritz. As a partner in premier-league Silicon Valley VC firm Sequoia, Moritz knows all about the Ivy League way of doing things and is keen to see more of it over here. So while his donation is ostensibly to his old college – the 454-years-young Christ Church - he has stipulated that the money should be handled not by the college alone, but by the university-wide investment fund Oxford University Asset Management. Such large-scale academic funds have performed well in the US and could do the same here. Moritz supports the theory, and is keen that his alma mater should give it a try.

Talking of theory, there is a school of thought that selling naming rights of any kind – regardless of the generosity of the donor – is a strategic mistake. A study of such ‘named’ business schools written up recently in the Harvard Business Review found that, once one individual’s monicker is on the brass plate, the flow of money from other suitably wealthy potential donors slows to a trickle. People with that kind of cash to throw around are not generally known for their self-effacing qualities, after all, and it seems they are unlikely to subscribe to anything that looks like someone else’s pet project.

So although the college formerly known as New Hall has picked up the larger short-term haul, it may be that the Christ Church/OUAM model is the one which will bear the greater long-term fruit. So long as Oxford can resist the temptation to let any of their economics dons near the portfolio - lest they find out the hard way that there is a large and potentially very costly gap between theory and practice...

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