Become a Member

Join PSC
Fill 1
PSC Rally across the Brooklyn Bridge

Home » Clarion » 2023 » July 2023 » What’s in a name? Lots

What’s in a name? Lots

CUNY boasts 25 schools spread across the five boroughs. Most are named for location (Brooklyn College, Queens College, etc.) Ten schools bear the names of individuals, and the names we give our institutions reflect who holds power and shed light on who we think we are.

CUNY schools named for individuals can be divided into two groups: 1) transactional naming (Macaulay, Newmark, Guttman); and 2) honorary naming (LaGuardia, Medgar Evers, Hostos, Lehman). All the transactional naming occurred recently, while the honorary names are generally a product of the Free CUNY era. The exceptions are Baruch and Hunter, which predate the founding of CUNY, and John Jay, whose role as an enslaver makes honoring him increasingly complicated.

Current CUNY practices treat naming a school, a program, a room, or an institute as a transaction bearing a clear price tag. Selling naming rights has become the norm across academia. The process is so standardized that the CUNY Board of Trustees shares an online laundry list of price tags. Want to name a professional school? That will cost you $20–50 million. Too steep? You can name a department or academic program for a mere $3–4 million. A community college conference room is a bargain for $50,000; that same room at a senior college or professional school costs $75,000–200,000.


There are plenty of people willing to pay. CUNY has scores of named programs, rooms and fellowships. Billionaire City College of New York (CCNY) alum William Macaulay donated $30 million to endow the Macaulay Honors College. Craigslist founder Craig Newmark paid $20 million to name the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. CUNY’s newest community college was named the Stella and Charles Guttman Community College after the Guttman Foundation donated $25 million. Renaming City College’s Division of Social Sciences as the Colin L. Powell School for Leadership and Service involved a $30 million fundraising campaign.

The money from selling naming rights has funded internships, scholarships, state-of-the-art equipment, and more. With the retreat of the state, this private money is increasingly critical to CUNY’s basic functioning. Yet, reliance on private money comes at a cost. The academic community loses the opportunity to choose its name and define itself by drawing inspiration from the honoree’s legacy.

The line between selling and honoring has never been crystal clear. Many New York schools, including Sarah Lawrence, Cornell and Vassar are named for their major, often founding donors. But today’s openly transactional naming seems different.

In 1847, New Yorkers voted to create the Free Academy (now City College) as a radical exercise in public education. Dr. Horace Webster, the Free Academy’s first president, characterized it as an experiment to educate “the children of the whole people,” not just “the privileged few.” This commitment to providing free education turned the Free Academy into a gateway of social mobility for many immigrant communities. Yet, in practice, “the children of the whole people” really meant its young white men.

Gender-based exclusion ended much earlier than racial exclusion. In 1870 the Normal College of the City of New York joined the Free Academy to provide free higher education to young women. In 1914, the Normal College was renamed Hunter after its founder and first president, Thomas Hunter.


As enrollment increased, CCNY and Hunter opened annexes in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. The Brooklyn annexes merged to form the co-educational Brooklyn College in 1930; the Queens annexes similarly merged into the co-educational Queens College in 1937. The names assigned to these new colleges were functional and descriptive (and incidentally may be available for renaming by donors willing to contribute $20–$25 million). Yet, even as these institutions became co-educational, the student body remained overwhelmingly white.

The move to open enrollment, pushed along by civil rights activism, changed these demographics. Black and Latinx enrollment soared as CUNY finally began to reflect the city’s multicultural population. CUNY responded by creating a slew of new institutions, including Lehman College (1968), Medgar Evers College (1970), Hostos Community College (1968) and LaGuardia Community College (1971). These new institutions, located in historically underserved areas, enrolled a more diverse student population.

Lehman and LaGuardia were relatively conventional naming choices, honoring long-time New York public officials and drawing inspiration from their careers in public service. The names Hostos and Medgar Evers, however, sent a message.

Eugenio María de Hostos was a renowned Puerto Rican educator, philosopher, and independence advocate. The naming of the new South Bronx school after Hostos signaled CUNY’s emerging commitment to educational equity and cultural diversity. Hostos offered the only bilingual Spanish/English program in the region and boasted a unique prison release program.


Medgar Evers College, named for murdered civil rights leader Medgar Wiley Evers, began as a partnership between CUNY and the Central Brooklyn community. Community leaders suggested the name, fought to make the school a senior college and helped shape the curriculum. CUNY and the community built Medgar Evers into an innovative school deeply committed to access, social justice and academic excellence.

Naming these two schools after influential leaders of color was the culmination of a hard-fought campaign to ensure CUNY served historically excluded Black and Latinx New Yorkers. From day one, the percentage of Medgar Evers and Hostos Black and Latinx students exceeded 96%.

Creating these schools was one thing; keeping them was another.

In 1976, the city was on the brink of bankruptcy. With CUNY’s budget in tatters, Chancellor Robert J. Kibbee floated a restructuring plan that included closing Hostos and converting Medgar Evers into a two-year institution. Despite widespread protests, the board of higher education voted to adopt both proposals.

The state legislature crafted a CUNY rescue package that partially reversed these decisions. The legislature allocated $3 million to save Hostos and retained a few baccalaureate programs at Medgar Evers. Saving Hostos and Medgar Evers owed much to PSC, community, and student mobilization. But it took until 1994 for Medgar Evers to regain senior college status.

Baruch College is an outlier, with a naming story that falls somewhere between today’s pay-to-play transactions and more traditional honorific naming.


In 1951, CCNY faced undesirable notoriety on multiple fronts. The basketball team was embroiled in a bribery scandal, and CCNY graduate Julius Rosenberg was arrested and tried for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. It was the McCarthy era, and Rosenberg’s CCNY affiliation featured prominently in the news coverage. Classmates stood accused of complicity and newspapers made much of the “communist cell” at CCNY.

Eager to shift the public narrative, CCNY renamed its business school after wealthy alum Bernard Baruch, a statesman with a reputation for integrity who was chair of the WWI War Industries Board and an advisor to presidents Wilson, Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Truman. A former CCNY trustee, he helped establish the business school decades earlier and was a generous donor to the college.

In 1953, the same year Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in Sing Sing, the Baruch School of Business and Public Administration was born. (Baruch became a stand-alone senior college in 1968.) The renaming was national news. Notably absent from news coverage of the new Baruch College was any mention of a naming gift. The college was a major beneficiary in Baruch’s will. And given the assiduous way CCNY courted him, and Baruch’s reputation for philanthropy, there were probably sizeable gifts along the way.


Ironically, were the naming decision being made today, Baruch’s pattern of generosity might be an obstacle to honoring him. To “maximize CUNY’s philanthropic potential,” the board’s Naming Policy discourages squandering [my word] a naming opportunity on a donor with an established giving history, pointing out that “[n]aming opportunities for cumulative gifts can limit the ability to offer that naming opportunity to another donor.”

What should we think about this? No SUNY colleges have been reduced to selling their names. Why has CUNY? Are CUNY’s institutional names just “assets” – articles of commerce to be sold, albeit under the guise of philanthropy? The names we give our institutions speak volumes about what we value and who decides what counts as history. Full public funding of public universities would put that decision back where it belongs – in the hands of “the whole people” of New York.

Rebecca Bratspies is a professor at the CUNY School of Law and the author of Naming Gotham: The Villains, Rogues, and Heroes Behind New York’s Place Names.

Published: June 21, 2023

Jump to Content
All Out for Job Security & Fair Raises - Sign Up for May Actions!