The Northwest Corner Building has a ridiculous name. Actually, it’s not so much a name as it is a painfully literal description. At least “Interdisciplinary Science Building” told us what was inside. This name tells the world, “This Space Left Blank for a Wealthy Donor.” And we do hope that some very wealthy, generous person will donate money to Columbia and to this building. But it should not be named the Very Wealthy, Generous Person Building.
Very Wealthy, Generous Person—please give! Your donation will be sincerely appreciated. But do not make our science building into a monument to yourself. Giving the building your own name will be as transparent as calling it the Northwest Corner Building. Everyone will know that the name was tacked on, desperately, in exchange for your (very generous) donation. That’s not only everyone on campus today, but everyone on campus years from now. Have we forgotten the egregious manner in which Livingston, named after the negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase, became Wallach (paper tycoon that he was)? No. No, we have not.
But we would also remember you, Very Wealthy, Generous Person, if you were generous in nominal spirit as well as in monetary deed. Name the building, but not after yourself. Pick a Columbian who has done the sort of things that you want this building to represent. We recommend Enrico Fermi, the brilliant physicist and former Columbia researcher, but the choice is ultimately up to you.
Why, you may ask, would you give us your money and not your name? Besides the fact that your building would be following in the tradition of Hamilton Hall, and besides the fact that there are other ways to recognize you as the donor—a large plaque or display in the lobby, for example—you would be leaving a legacy far greater than a name above a door. Because the reality, Very Wealthy, Generous Person, is that your name won’t mean anything to anybody, apart from the aforementioned eye-rolling and tacky obviousness. Your name—and this is in no way a reflection on your character or personal memorability—will not be particularly meaningful to students. They won’t walk by the building, see your name, and think of you.
But they might walk by the Enrico Fermi Building dedicated to science and think of all that Fermi achieved. From time to time, they might quietly contemplate the way in which Fermi’s work was the caliber of work toward which we hope our scientists will strive.
Or maybe they’ll think of how lucky they are to go to a school where buildings are named after people like Enrico Fermi, and how much pride they take in Columbia’s history, and how important it is to recognize excellence in academic pursuits—and how fortunate we are that a Very Wealthy, Generous Person thought those things were important, too.