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DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER: What’s In A Name?

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Last week, Southern Oregon University announced that the new athletic pavilion will be named after the DeBoer family—as in, the family that founded and owns Lithia Motors.

In 1946, in the years before car culture really expanded throughout the United States, Walt DeBoer founded the company. They only sold 14 cars that year, but since then the company has since grown to dealerships in 18 states, a multi-generational family affair, and one of Oregon’s only three current Fortune 500 companies.

This isn’t the DeBoer first donation to SOU. They have donated funds for art buildings and athletic scholarships. The donation is $1 million, and helps complete the ambitious sport arena for the school—and pushes forward an important step as SOU continues to try and develop as a contender. Whether by design or happenstance, like many universities, SOU seems to be pursuing a game plan of increasing its academic standing by raising the profile of its sports teams. In the past few years, the sports programs at SOU have decidedly up their game. The Raider football team went from perennial loser to national title. Cross-country and track teams have landed high marks at the national level and the new rowing team scored a gold and silver medal at national competitions this past spring.

Although SOU doesn’t compete at the top Division I level, there is an established tradition that success in sports is perhaps the most efficient way to boost overall reputation and standing. For example, an appearance by a school’s basketball team in March’s NCAA tournament translates into a bump in application numbers.

But not everyone is happy about the DeBoer contribution.  

In response to the naming of the pavilion, the Messenger received a few notes and phone calls from current SOU students concerned that they were not given buy-in to the naming. One current student left a voicemail.

“Hi Ashland resident and SOU student here,” the voicemail said. “The SOU Foundation decided to sell the new athletic pavilion; it’s gonna be named after Lithia Motors and the DeBoer family.” He added, “The student body is beside ourselves.”

On a follow-up phone call with the Messenger, the student pointed out that the students were not given opportunity to voice their opinion on the name of the athletic faculty, and indicated that he thought the family’s politics may not jibe with the student body’s sensibility.

Naming a building is a tricky proposition, especially on current college campuses, where many different persons feel strong affinities towards the facilities. The name can indicate attitudes and affiliations, and in the eyes of students, manifest whether the school is more wed to its ideals or its business necessities. Hampshire College, an esteemed eastern college, for example, holds the liberal arts philosophy of emphasizing its students’ wants over the business needs of the school.  As a result, over the decades most of the buildings on campus have been named from suggestions by the students, like Malcolm X and Emily Dickenson, as opposed to names of donors. The trade-off for such idealism, however, is that Hampshire College costs upwards of $50,000 each year.

This isn’t a completely new tradition. In the 19th century, for example, Andrew Carnegie donated a boatload of money to Princeton, with the caveat that the school would never host a law school and instead would build a lake for a rowing team. “The world needs more rowers, not lawyers,” he is credited with saying.

Increasingly schools are relying on these large donations from benefactors as, increasingly, college tuition doesn’t fully pay for the operations of a college, and universities have become needed to fold private donations into their business plan.

But perhaps the biggest lesson is that the DeBoer family is choosing generosity over greed. Especially during these times when the leading example of wealth in the United States has used his wealth to flaunt his ego, it is encouraging that a wealthy family in Southern Oregon is instead using their money to build community.

 

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