Penn Law's new name bombs, so Penn Law is back - for now

The lesson here: Tread carefully when it comes to messing with history and prestige — even if a whopping $125 million is in play. 

That's the amount of money that the University of Pennsylvania Law School recently received as a donation — the largest ever to a law school. Penn Law set another record as well. The Philadelphia school became the first Ivy League school to make a name change in honor of a donor.

It’s now called the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. Initially, the abbreviated reference was Carey Law — a move that bombed.

Think back to the release of New Coke. It got that kind of reaction. 

A protest erupted over the shortened name, including a petition drive that garnered 3,000 signatures. The name Penn Law holds greater stature, given its history, students and alumni behind the petition drive argued. 

Students told the Daily Pennsylvania newspaper they are worried that employers might not recognize the new name nor hold it in the same light as Penn Law.

“[Harvard Law, Cornell Law, and Columbia Law] would never ever sell their name off, so why are we selling our name off?” third-year student Kristen DeWilde, who’s involved with the petition, told the newspaper.

Well, the school relented — sort of. It's shortened name is Penn Law again and will remain as Penn Law until the fall of 2022 when it becomes Penn Carey Law.

Lots of people were upset by the initial move, and it remains to be seen if this compromise sticks. 

A graduate wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "I'm grateful to Penn Law’s donors. The school wouldn’t be what it is without them, and, as a recipient of the Levy Scholarship, I likely wouldn’t have spent three years in Philadelphia without them either. This is different. It’s different than naming a building or a room because my fellow alumni and I did not attend a building or a room. An institution is more than its fixtures."

The record donation was made by W.P. Carey Foundation, which supports educational institutions. It bettered the $115 million given by James E. Rogers to the University of Arizona College of Law in 1998. It changed its name in honor of Rogers, an attorney and media pioneer, as well.

Penn Law  in a news release, said the “gift will allow the Carey Law School to increase student financial support, ensuring robust support for historically underrepresented students; expand upon one of the most longstanding, rigorous, and expansive pro bono programs of any peer law school; and support the recruitment of the finest scholars who will generate new research insights that will inform and impact the profession.”

The Carey family has a long association with the university, with generations of family members having attended the school, the statement said.

It’s given money to other law schools, as well. The University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law was so named after it received a $30 million donation from the Foundation in 2011.

Law schools renaming themselves in honor of donors is hardly new and, and it's becoming more of a trend. This donation comes on the heels of one made to Pepperdine University School of Law, which received $50 million from developer Rick J. Caruso and his wife, Tina. The Malibu, Calif., school is now named Pepperdine University Rick J. Caruso School of Law.

The number of schools that have changed their names to honor large donors continues to rise and is now at nearly 24. 

But this was an Ivy League school. For many, it just seems unseemly.

These gifts — while widely celebrated by the schools — can cause controversies beyond name changes.  In 2018, the University of Alabama School of Law changed its name to honor Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr., who pledged $26.5 million.

But the relationship between the school and Florida developer soured. The school gave back the money and stripped his name from its buildings.


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