Small college says this major gift would save it—but judge says the donor asks too much

Next steps not yet hinted at

Paul Smith's College may not violate its founder's will and change its name at the request of a prospective major donor, according to a judge's ruling released Wednesday.

Like many institutions, the upstate New York-based school faces enrollment challenges and financial woes. But Paul Smith's had a major donor ready to step in and save it.

Joan Weill, a long-term board member and supporter of Paul Smith's, has pledged $20 million to put the financially troubled school on a more stable path—if the school would change its name to Joan Weill-Paul Smith's College.

However, the name change would contradict restrictions imposed by the college's founder, whose will mandated that the college be "forever known" as Paul Smith's.

The ruling

Paul Smith's argued that it should be allowed to change the name because it badly needs Weill's gift. The college also showed data demonstrating a need to diversify its enrollment strategy. Officials presented a $30 million plan to the judge for rejuvenating the school—and pointed out that Weill's gift would cover most of the cost.

In court papers, the college argued the will's restriction "nearly fatally impedes the ability of Paul Smith's to seek large gifts from a single donor in order to make the investments it needs to remain viable."

However, the judge disagreed, ruling that Paul Smith's had not produced hard evidence its name was "holding the college back" or causing harm.

"This court does not find that the name change restriction is impractical, or wasteful, to such a degree that it frustrates the charitable purpose of the bequest of [the founder]," says the ruling.

Paul Smith's President Cathy Dove released a statement saying she is disappointed by the decision but that she and the board "truly appreciate the enduring connection our people feel to the college and our traditions."

The college has not indicated whether it might appeal—and Weill has not hinted at whether she will move forward with all or part of her pledged gift without the name change.

Philanthropy experts say the case signals several trends: a shift toward mega-gifts, a more transactional approach to giving, and a rise in debates over donor or founder restrictions—and how to escape them (Mueller/Hussey, New York Times, 10/7; Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 10/8).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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