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For obvious reasons I will not be too specific, but I am aware of a situation (at a private research university) where a company with a somewhat less-than-stellar public reputation has endowed a chair professorship. The concerned department and dean want one of their current professors to accept the chair (though some of the faculty would much prefer a new search to fill the position). There is some reluctance to accept this offer, in large part because the professor being offered the chair balks at becoming a "brand ambassador" for the company making the endowment while getting no explicit benefit (the chair would cover only the salary that is paid anyway). This professor (who is evidently preferred as having the best research profile in the department) and some colleagues also claim that an endowment named after some individual(s) would have been more acceptable.

So my questions are:

  1. Is it generally the norm that any academic offered a chair professorship will accept it, for collegiality?

  2. Is it standard for such an endowment to cover only the professor's salary but not offer any grants, etc.?

  3. Also, is there a real difference in perception between an endowment named after a person/family vs. one named after a company?

9

You are asking too many questions in one post and most ask for opinion! Brief responses to each:

  1. Usually faculty accept named professorships because of the increase in prestige (named-professorships are a scarce commodity and operate as such) as well as the increase in salary or research funds that usually attaches to these. Cynical people would say the latter is more important.

  2. Usually (almost always?) the endowment would carry an increased salary at the very least and typically additional research funds but I have not found any statistics on the average and sd of this delta. One way to explore this is to look at the public salary data available at state-run universities in the United States and compare named vs. non-named professors at the same rank in the same department. This is left as an exercise for the reader and doesn’t account for research fund deltas.

  3. Yes, in that most person-based named-professorships are named after a person who most people do not know whereas corporate names are more familiar (for example: Prof. Mark C. Elliott, the Mark Schwartz Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History at Harvard versus Prof Sheldon Garon, the Nissan Professor in Japanese Studies at Princeton). And thus while neither Mark Schwartz nor Nissan Motors influence the work of either faculty person, the perception is worse in the second in that we've heard of Nissan and can attribute ulterior motives to it. And as dmckee notes in the comments, humans are mortal -- while corporations are immortal.

  4. Note that there is a third category of alumn-class-named professorships: Cornel West, the Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies. These are essentially crowdfunded by a class cohort. I should note that some named fellowships are also crowdfunded — they are named in honor of so-and-so. Often the benefactor is the spouse or children, but occasionally the departure of a very-loved professor motivates students to donate. There is also a fourth category where a named professorship is created by the trustees of the university (or by the state or national government) in honor of or recognition of someone or something.

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    A large fraction of chairs named after people are named after dead people, so influence from the person whose name is attached to the chair is a moot point unless it is a Chair of Postmortem Communications. – dmckee Sep 15 '14 at 3:56
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    @dmckee I would assume most of the alumns of the CLass of 1943 to be dead too, so they aren't influencing Cornel West either! – RoboKaren Sep 15 '14 at 4:08
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    @RoboKaren Thank you, but to clarify for #1, would a professor (almost) always accept an endowed chair even if named after a company that has an unsavory reputation? Nissan, Microsoft, etc. (which have endowed chairs) don't have much of PR problem, so they're not examples. The closest similar instance I know is Michael Bérubé who actually resigned the Paterno Family chair at Penn State. – sr3u Sep 15 '14 at 6:53
  • @sr3u This is way too subjective. Even Bérubé had no issue with being a Paterno Professor until after the whole affair blew up. All of this depends on: 1) how ethically flexible the receiving professor is; and 2) how terrible the offering endowment is. Some people are more ethically flexible than others, some organizations and some people are more evil (or perceived to be more evil) than others. – RoboKaren Sep 15 '14 at 12:54

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