A storm is brewing at the University of NSW over the decision to bequeath the naming rights of a school to a private benefactor, after the university announced last month it would name a College of Fine Arts facility and gallery after two arts patrons.

The stoush began when UNSW Vice Chancellor Dr Fred Hilmer announced Sydney philanthropists and arts patrons Dr Gene Sherman and Brian Sherman had donated $2 million towards the redevelopment of the COFA Paddington campus. The federal government kicked in a further $48 million towards the new building — which will house Sydney’s third major public art gallery — with an extra $8 million anticipated to come from other private backers.

In return for the gift, UNSW declared that one of the new galleries to be built would be named after the Shermans, with another to be named in tribute of former COFA gallery director Nick Waterlow, who was tragically killed last year.

Additionally, COFA Dean Professor Ian Howard also revealed the School of Art History and Art Education would be renamed as the Sherman School of Art History and Art Education. Gene Sherman is also to be bestowed with a new adjunct professorship.

A group of COFA students opposed to the decision recently sent a letter to UNSW staff members to try and raise awareness over the move. In the open letter, the group of students raise umbrage with the size of the donation and that the decision to name a school at COFA after two private benefactors could impact on curriculum independence:

“Considering the long history of this school and the many wonderful teachers and students who have studied in it and built its reputation, it is completely unacceptable to have it renamed after the Sherman group, who have no such close affiliations with it.”

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According to the UNSW naming rights policy, buildings or a “significant and identifiable part of a building” can only be named after a person or group if that benefactor has donated 25% of a building’s cost or “supports the university or a faculty with endowments in excess of $5 million”.

The facility that will bear the Sherman monniker is expected to cost around $6.5 million — meaning their $2 million donation falls safely within the 25% benchmark — however UNSW naming rights policy does not dictate how it is to bestow naming rights on schools. Buildings, wings, lecture theatres, laboratories, walks, gardens, gates and chairs are all mentioned, but not schools.

Osman Faruqi, SRC president at UNSW, told Crikey this was a significant distinction for a public university and that the Sherman name could lead to a conflict of interest. The Shermans operated a private gallery until 2008, at which point they established the not-for-profit Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation.

“They are picking the smallest school to try and ram this through and then, once the precedent is set, they will try similar moves at bigger faculties, so they can bring in more money into the university’s coffers,” Faruqi told Crikey.

A meeting is planned between the COFA dean and students tomorrow, with protests and petitions planned if an agreement can’t be sought. Faruqi said that nothing less than a total back down from the vice chancellor would be acceptable.

But a spokesperson for UNSW told Crikey there was no conflict of interest and similar moves were common place in the United States: “‘Naming rights’ does not imply any diminution of the governance, management or academic freedom of the university or any university entity. The Shermans have been closely associated with COFA for many years, there will be absolutely no influence on the curriculum. It’s always the first thing that universities try to make very clear.”

Faruqi disagrees, telling Crikey the art gallery directors had their own private interests: “This is the first time at UNSW where the actual school, where students are being taught and where research is being produced, has sold its naming rights. Linking public education to private outcomes undermines the integrity and quality of education at the UNSW.”

The issue of Dr Gene Sherman’s new title has also caused some disquiet at UNSW; Faruqi says the art director’s new adjunct professorship creates the wrong perception, regardless of her experience: “What students want to see is appointment and promotion based on quality teaching and learning, not dependent on who can afford to pay million dollar donations.”

A UNSW spokesperson said Sherman’s appointment was in line with other UNSW and COFA appointments, which “specifically recognise a recipient who is generally expert in an appropriate field from professional practice/industry”.

Peter Fray

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