COLUMN: SPEA name change is worthy of criticism


IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, known to students as SPEA, has been renamed after former secretary of the U.S. Treasury Paul H. O’Neill in honor of his career and $30 million gift to the school. Matt Begala

Students of what has previously been known as IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs were in for a surprise March 4 when they learned, without warning, that their school’s name had been changed to the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

The school was recently ranked as the best place to get a Master’s in Public Administration among 290 nationwide graduate schools by the U.S. News and World Report. This is just one of many impressive rankings the now O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs has received.

In other words, the school has a stellar reputation. So any name change should have been approached with caution — when people admire you by one name, it’s usually not the best move to change to another.

The reason Paul H. O’Neill’s name was tacked on to the beginning of the school’s name is in part due to his careers as a former secretary of the U.S. Treasury, as well as CEO of Alcoa, a metal manufacturing corporation based in Pittsburgh.

But what some don't know is that O’Neill, in the eyes of many, doesn’t represent the school’s values — Alcoa is known for having a troubling record of environmental damages.

In Badin, North Carolina, residents of the area surrounding an Alcoa plant have experienced health problems and early mortality that can be credibly linked to contaminants leaked from the plant over decades, including during O’Neill’s tenure. And although this classification came after that tenure, Alcoa’s plant near Evansville, Indiana has been called a “super polluter” by the Center for Public Integrity, meaning it is in the top 100 sites in the country for both toxic air releases and greenhouse gas emissions.

That doesn’t seem fitting for a school where the world’s future environmental policy makers are being educated. That’s a sentiment at least some of its students share.

Additionally, O'Neill's name was added to the school because he made a $30 million donation. That’s a huge contribution, and there is no doubt it will improve the quality of education at the school, as well as provide more funds to bring students and research fellows who otherwise wouldn’t be able to come.

But, if the renaming was a precondition for the donations, what does that say about rich donors to universities? The ultra-rich shouldn’t need their egos stroked to motivate philanthropy.

Donations are meant to be altruistic. Worshiping the wealthy for giving up some of the absurd amounts of money they shouldn’t have been allowed to accumulate in the first place perpetuates the acceptance of our radically unfair economic system.

Lastly, one of the most obvious problems with the school’s new name is that it’s a mouthful. At nine words totaling 58 characters, this name is competing with IU’s recently renamed Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies for most cumbersome title — do we really need to say both “global” and “international” to get the point?

In the future, IU should more carefully consider the implications of naming schools for the highest bidder.

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