Prerit Kothari is just wrapping up his freshman year at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the business school that’s among the most prestigious in the world.
At this point, he has learned a lot of things. But does he know who Wharton was?
Before we answer that, consider how Philadelphia is a city populated by buildings crowned with the names of the likes of civil giants, and/or the very rich — people whose munificence was rewarded with having their moniker plastered on a building for perpetuity. In Abington, Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman was willing to hand over $25 million to have the high school bear his name (although the school board voted Tuesday night to accept the donation, the name change was retracted last month amid pressure from parents in the district). Presumably, people want naming rights so they and their accomplishments live on.
Or not. Kothari, 18, has no idea who Wharton was.
And it turns out, very few students do. Interviews with two dozen college and high school students around Philadelphia showed almost none had any knowledge of the folks who shelled out millions for a school in their name.
It raises the question: Why pay the big bucks? Is it worth it?
Schwarzman, the Wall Street billionaire who made his fortune in private equity, has been relatively quiet throughout the Abington controversy, but the school board wrote in a March 30 letter that the name change was proposed as a way to reflect “the magnitude of the gift.”
Philadelphia philanthropist Raymond G. Perelman and his wife, Ruth, in 2011 donated $225 million to Penn, the largest single gift in the university’s history and one of the largest-ever gifts to a medical school in the United States. The donation created a permanent endowment for the school, which was renamed the Perelman School of Medicine.
“I look at it as Penn Medicine gave me a gift,” Perelman, the billionaire founder of RGP Holdings, told the New York Times after the renaming. “They offered me an opportunity to have my name on one of the best medical schools in the country.”
Perelman is himself a graduate of the Wharton School, named after Joseph Wharton, a 19th-century entrepreneur who made his fortune in metal mining. Wharton pledged $100,000 in 1881 (worth more than $2 million today) to establish the now internationally acclaimed school, which has educated a long list of business leaders including Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, and Donald Trump.
Unfortunately for Wharton and Perelman, it seems that, like Kothari, plenty of current students don’t know anything about them. One Perelman student said she had “no idea” who Perelman is, while a friend chimed in: “All I know is it’s a good school.”
Students interviewed on Penn’s campus, many of whom didn’t want to be named for fear of sounding a little clueless, said they just never learned about the people behind the names of the schools they’re paying tens of thousands of dollars a year to attend.
The closest guess: “an industrialist of some sort,” said one Wharton student.
In fact, Joseph Wharton was critical in establishing the zinc and nickel metal industries in the United States. Another student, who was wearing a suit and standing outside Huntsman Hall on Monday, guessed (correctly?) that Wharton was probably “somewhat of a legend.”
Schwarzman’s deal with Abington, had it resulted in a name change, would have been among the first of its kind in the Philadelphia area. But even at public high schools named after people who had done good deeds, you’d be hard-pressed to find a student knowledgeable about who they were.
At Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, a prestigious magnet school at 17th and Spring Garden routinely ranked among the nation’s best, most of the fifth- through 12th-grade students are aware their school’s full name is a mouthful — ask and they will recite. They’ve also seen the portrait of Julia Reynolds Masterman — the founder and first president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council whom the school was named for in 1958 — hanging near the main office.
But asked if she knew who Masterman was, sophomore Chidinma Onukwuru said, frankly: “Um, no.” Junior Andy Chek said all he knows is that Masterman has living relatives who attend events from time to time.
“We actually didn’t learn anything about it,” said Linda Yang, an 18-year-old graduating senior.
To be fair, the Wharton School was founded more than a century ago, and Masterman was named generations before its current students. But things weren’t much different across the city on Temple’s campus, where some of its colleges were named after benefactors alive and well.
Amirah Perry, a 21-year-old sophomore studying human resource management in the Richard J. Fox School of Business and Management, wasn’t aware Tuesday of who Richard J. Fox is. Temple’s business school was renamed in 1999 after Fox, a Temple donor, real estate magnate, and longtime chair of the university’s board of trustees. Like most of the Temple students interviewed, Perry didn’t even know the “Richard J.” part.
Perhaps tellingly, plenty of students on Temple’s campus knew about the man behind the new O’Connor Plaza, which has recently been the subject of protests. It’s named after attorney Patrick J. O’Connor, the current board of trustees chair who defended Bill Cosby (a former Temple trustee himself) in a 2005 sexual-assault lawsuit brought by Andrea Constand, the woman at the center of the only criminal charges levied against Cosby. Jurors in the comedian’s second trial — the first ended in a mistrial — are currently deliberating.
Yet, students in a school renamed as recently as last year knew very little about the person behind the name. Erin Moran, a 21-year-old senior in the Lew Klein College of Media and Communications at Temple, said she was well aware the school was renamed last year, and, in particular, remembered that Bob Saget had come to campus for the ceremony.
But what did she know about Klein, the broadcasting pioneer whose multimillion-dollar gift meant his name is now emblazoned across the front of the building where she was standing?
“Honestly, not that much,” Moran said, “which is kind of embarrassing.”