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For Harvard, the Name Is the Game

Harvard’s Professional Pipelines

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In previous articles, I have called on Harvard to spend its money more freely to improve the quality of education and incentivize prosocial outcomes. I even suggested that the University should sometimes act as a force for societal redistribution, accumulating wealth from the rich and dispersing it to those less well-off.

To fund these initiatives, Harvard must obtain the requisite funds from someplace. Where?

Donations.

Yes, Harvard already receives hundreds of millions of dollars annually in current use gifts. But we should get more. My strategy: First, sell even more naming rights, and second, let the market set their prices.

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Auction It All Away

Put simply, Harvard should name more things. In April, Kenneth C. Griffin ’89 rechristened the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences following a $300 million donation. In addition, recent Crimson reporting revealed that the Harvard Corporation had previously set the cost of the naming rights to Harvard Medical School at $1 billion.

These financial windfalls are a step in the right direction, but naming should not stop there. If Harvard sold the naming rights to all its graduate schools at similar prices, the University would net billions of dollars — with a capital “B.” Invested in the endowment, these sums would grow even larger.

And let’s not stop with the graduate schools — Harvard should sell the rights to smaller things too. Buildings, departments, concentrations, rooms, hallways, stairwells, urinals, you name it (excuse the pun). Why not the Michael R. Bloomberg Science Center, or the William H. Gates Department of Mathematics?

Harvard must not leave these vast sources of revenue untapped.

These donations would not only contribute to improving our community; they could also kickstart initiatives with impacts extending beyond the confines of campus.

This campus’s research, for example, has world-changing potential. We pioneer groundbreaking medical innovations capable of saving millions of lives. We are at the cutting edge of the global battle against climate change. All this is only possible if our laboratories have copious funds with which to operate.

With added funding, Harvard could also implement other socially beneficial initiatives, such as the pay-it-forward program I recently proposed.

Given these immense benefits, why might Harvard be hesitant about selling naming rights?

“Harvard, I think, doesn’t do it because many people view that kind of fundraising as crass,” Douglas J. Sylvester, former dean and veteran fundraiser at Arizona State University’s law school, said. “This idea that, oh, now you’re going to name a chair for a thousand dollars — we’re commercializing education. We shouldn’t need to do that.”

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But that mindset breeds complacency. Harvard should not consider itself above this scrappy fundraising — especially given the untapped billions in revenue. The University should maximize revenue from every stream available. If people will give, Harvard should take.

According to Sylvester, ASU has adopted this approach. Everything from stairwells to computer screens have names, he said.

Plus, let’s not fool ourselves — higher education has always been commercialized. Harvard has named buildings for hundreds of years. Explicitly treating naming rights like commodities would at least make these decisions less arbitrary and more transparent.

Some might argue that our gargantuan endowment makes it unnecessary for the University to sell everything on campus.

But the endowment is not a rainy day fund, nor can it be spent at will. Moreover, the endowment is not endlessly large — if it were, Harvard might already have implemented the proposals I have previously endorsed.

Others claim that donating to Harvard is not the most effective use of funds, suggesting that other forms of giving might have an even larger prosocial impact.

While this may be true, wealthy donors are already giving to Harvard. For the University’s large base of successful alumni, the choice might be between donating to their alma mater and not donating at all. Without leveraging its unique fundraising capabilities, Harvard foolishly forfeits potential profits.

Given that reality, Harvard should maximize societal benefit. Donations are inevitable — let's make sure we extract as much value from the uber-rich as we can.

Going Once? Going Twice? Sold!

But how much in potential donations is out there? That’s where the second aspect of my proposal comes in.

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Harvard’s naming rights are distinctive and expensive. How do we know their worth? The truth is we don’t.

It seems to me that the Harvard Corporation is not best positioned to set the price of naming rights. How did they settle on $1 billion to name the Medical School, for example? Why not $1.1 billion? $1.2 billion?

Incorrectly picking prices could cost Harvard millions of dollars. Consequently, when making large naming decisions, the University should trust the market. Don’t set an arbitrary price; hold open auctions and actively court buyers.

I know the idea sounds outlandish. But consider the number of one-of-a-kind items that are sold via auctions: works of art, houses, antiques. Wealthy patrons already bid on priceless artifacts; naming rights for Harvard’s assets need be no different. Think of Harvard buildings like Picassos. Even better, the University has a monopoly — you can only buy a Harvard building, department, or vestibule from Harvard itself.

An auction strategy provides a higher potential for financial gain: Research shows that auctions tend to increase ultimate selling prices. Universities should take advantage of this dynamic rather than leaving dollars on the table.

Auctions also preserve the University’s flexibility: Harvard could pick the bidding structure, set a price floor, accept only unrestricted donations, or impose any number of other conditions.

Auctioning naming rights may seem like an extreme step, but the projects it could fund are equally extreme — as well as bold and exciting. In order to improve the quality of education and increase social impact, we might need these more radical financing strategies.

Julien Berman ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House. His column, “Harvard’s Professional Pipelines,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

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