College Corner with Eugene Lang

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.


Over break, the Daily Gazette sat down with Eugene Lang ‘38 in the Fifth Avenue office of his Eugene M. Lang Foundation to talk about philanthropy and his experience in general.

The Daily Gazette: It seems like half the buildings on campus have your name on them —

Eugene Lang: How do you feel about having donors’ names on buildings?

DG: Well, they need to be named something.

EL: Do you think that just because someone gave the money for a building, that they have any particular claim on the name?

DG: To some extent. Well, for example, the Science Center Commons was in someone else’s name but was primarily given by you, is that right?

EL: Yes, Maurice Eldridge. I think Maurice is doing wonderful service to Swarthmore, and I think money isn’t the only basis on which recognition should be associated, and there can even be questions as to whether or not, if someone does give a lot of money, that their name should have preemptive attention on interest. There are those who feel that, perhaps it’s not a good idea, having an individual person’s name unduly spread around campus. What do you think?

DG: Well does kind of get confusing to say, “It’s in Lang,” and there are three options for that, but beyond that…

EL: I think people probably manage to figure it out in the end, but generally speaking, do you think it’s, say, an unwarranted expression of ego?

DG: I don’t know if I’d call it unwarranted…well, the donor was instrumental in building whatever building is in question, so it seems reasonable if they want recognition for it.

EL: Well, he paid for it. But what happens when it goes on one, two, three and so on? Do you think there’s an appropriate limit?

DG: I don’t know if there’s a fast limit, you can’t have more than four, but it seems reasonable to me to stop at a certain point.

EL: When?

DG: Well, it’s up to the preferences of the donor….

EL: I have to say, I raise the question, you don’t raise the question, because I’m interested in your view. I think there’s…you know, one could say that enough is enough, but on the other hand, from a college’s point of view, they never can get enough to do all the things they want to do as part of an educational program. Do you think that it takes anything away from the college to have another name associated extensively with it?

DG: I don’t think it necessarily detracts from the college, but it kind of…kind of like with the New Dorm, Alice Paul, obviously Alice Paul didn’t donate the building, but it was named in honor of her. And I think that might be a good practice in general.

EL: I would think that, if I were a student, I might question the fact that someone’s name on a building might be more of an expression of vanity in that the name on a building doesn’t necessarily contribute to its purpose.

DG: Yeah. In that aspect, it could be seen as a little vain, but it’s also…giving a building is a big deal.

EL: You say a little bit vain. Some think it’s a little bit wicked, or a little bit wrong, or…. Vanity is one of the cardinal sins, you know. What do you think?

DG: I don’t think I really have a problem with it as a practice in general.

EL: Do you think it’s a good idea to have a person’s name involved as extensively as perhaps mine might be?

DG: It would be a problem if every building had your name on it. As much as it is now, I feel like it’s kind of at an acceptable level, in that…there’s a couple buildings, there’s Lang Scholars, Lang Chairs, but it’s not like there’s the Lang Political Science major or anything. Are you suggesting that it is a problem?

EL: I’m not suggesting anything, I’m just saying this is something that a lot of people may think. It’s a very proper thing to think about. I think having a building named after a person, particularly at Swarthmore, is a very nice distinction. It may very well bother some people; on the other hand, it’s a very nice, very satisfying feeling to believe that you have a recognized significance towards an institution like Swarthmore.

DG: Well, there’s also the Eugene Lang College [the liberal arts school within the New School].

EL: Yes. Do you think that makes sense, to have an institution named after you?

DG: That’s not really an uncommon practice. Maybe it’s not as common more recently, but a lot of other schools are named that way…Yale comes to mind, it was named after one of its early donors, sort of the same situation, and I’m sure lots of other schools are as well.

EL: Why do you think that anyone would be interested in anything beyond the fact that I’ve given money for particular purposes?

DG: Well, I feel like naming a building after someone is honoring them, and you’ve sponsored so many programs, like the I Have a Dream Foundation, and those might be worth honoring.

EL: They might, but a lot of other people have done good things too, in fact, those who do the most honorable things don’t often live to have the privilege of being honored for the things they did. But I don’t mean to be the interrogator, this is your interview.

DG: No, that’s fine. So, have you been…other than the Maurice Eldridge Commons, have you been doing other things like that recently? Are you starting to shift away from naming things after yourself, or are you just thinking?

EL: I’d like to think that associating my name with something represents associating my name with something that is good, and represents a civic responsibility, not just the money, but the thought. Generally speaking, I go to the store to buy something, I buy what I need, what I want, and I pay for it. Doing things for a college, or for a person, well, it’s a different thing. It’s a different league. You measure things in terms of its perceived value, and not everyone agrees that the creation of a performing arts center was the best thing to do with the significant sum of money that was involved. In fact, there was significant opposition to that. But I believe that a performing arts center was a very good and important area for Swarthmore, to present for a broader creative student input.

DG: Well, yes, it’s a very nice and useful space.

EL: But that’s my opinion, and apparently those who thought that it was a good idea had more to say than those who were against it. The fact is…if you have money to give, it’s not necessarily a big deal to give it. You give it because it’s the right thing to do, or because you believe it’s the right thing to do. I have to admit that there’s a satisfaction, but it’s not the same kind of satisfaction as putting over a business deal. There, you give…you tap an income stream that is legitimate income. It’s not taxable, which is of course not the essential virtue, but it’s an incentive, it can be an incentive. Of course if you have money to give, that’s not the first thing that deserves consideration. But I think it’s a good thing, if you’re lucky enough to be able to have money, you should be able to give it, make opportunities for improving the quality of education, and the ambition and talents of young people. The older you get, the more you learn to appreciate that.

DG: Okay. So you’ve…all the stuff that I know that you’ve done has been about education, in one form or another. Has that been your main focus?

EL: Well, it’s been a primary focus. I’ve also done things in healthcare. I’ve established several children’s clinics and hospitals. One of my major programs right now is a health literacy program, which I intend to use in parallel with I Have a Dream, so that youngsters will as part of the I Have a Dream relationship will also be exposed more productively and usefully to health.

DG: So what kind of specific things will that program entail?

EL: Well, the issues of various problems: health, obesity, drugs, human relationships…it’s a major consideration that as you get older, you get exposed to different kinds of problems that require appropriate education and maturity to deal with.

DG: So, the official reason for this interview was that you were named in Barron’s as one of the top ten philanthropists who “epitomize thoughtful and effective giving.”

EL: I’m surprised that got to Swarthmore’s campus. I didn’t think the reading public on the campus was that great.

DG: Yeah, there was a little news blurb on the Swarthmore website when that happened. So there was that, recently, and then about ten years ago you got the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is a pretty big deal. Among the people being honored that year was Rosa Parks. What was that like?

EL: It was wonderful. She’s a tremendous woman, and it’s very hard for me to measure anything I ever did against the raw issues of principle that she had in an environment that was distinctly hostile. But I don’t think it’s a competition —

DG: No, of course not.

EL: Obviously, it’s nice to be honored, but also…there’s a quality of satisfaction in intelligent giving, and I have to believe that giving a lot is not necessarily good, but it’s the idea of something that creates the value. There are some things that one would consider to be desirable, very desirable, somewhat desirable, or a waste of money. It varies depending on individual interest, I suppose. A college really has no particular barriers they’ve established to avoid knowledge, quite the contrary, it’s supposed to expand the opportunity to gain knowledge and to test knowledge in the marketplace against those who are thoughtful and concerned about this issue.

EL: The other thing about giving that I think is important is the enormous satisfaction that you get when you have given wisely, productively. For different reasons, for different biases and so forth, but everyone’s entitled, no institution has the obligation to accept something which it institutionally objects to, but I think one of the greatest motivations of giving is being associated with the mission of the gift. It’s very hard to realize, unless you yourself have been the beneficiary of a scholarship, what the meaning of that scholarship is to the person who gets it and who otherwise might not be able to go to college. I guess the first gift that I ever gave to Swarthmore — and the value of my gifts to Swarthmore now exceed a hundred million dollars, and they’ve grown in value over time, of course, the college has managed the endowment well, but also because others have supported the idea, nobody ever does anything alone. A lot of the grants and scholarships I gave are on a basis where my name does not appear, but the person who matches the funding I give has the opportunity to be the principle donor.

EL: The first scholarship I ever gave was back a long time, I had a scholarship in honor of my parents, who never in the world dreamed I would be able to go to Swarthmore College, let alone be able to afford to go there. But a generous donor of the college did make it possible, and I did go there. I guess the thing that meant the most to me that I had the opportunity to do that, was that my parents were alive to know that their son was expressing himself the way that I did in honor of them, for having contributed a Swarthmore scholarship in their honor. It meant a great deal to them, because the idea that I would ever be in a position to do that was about as remote as any idea could possibly be. I have to say, it’s one of the things that I’ve done that I feel is more important to me than any of the more costly buildings or whatever, because in a way it was something that they appreciated while they were alive. They would get a letter from the student receiving the scholarship each year, and of course you don’t have yet your children who will be honoring you with a scholarship in your name — perhaps you will — perhaps my experience in that respect may inspire eventually your children to do something like that.

DG: That would be nice.

EL: Nobody who gives a scholarship, how should I put this — well, the sacrifice of giving it is so far counterbalanced by the sheer satisfaction one gets in really being able to do something which, really makes you feel good that you did it.

DG: Is that particular scholarship still around?

EL: Oh yes. My parents are dead, but I get a letter each year. I don’t look for it, but I learn to expect it. I get a good number of letter each year, not just from students but from their parents, and I’d say that encourages me to do more. If you like ice cream, you know, don’t give up on it. And then of course, it’s not just a question of giving money to do something. A lot of what you do is stimulated by your own ideas of positive thinking. Swarthmore should be able to do this, or Swarthmore students should be able to do that, or Swarthmore students ought to be encouraged to take social initiatives, encouraged to learn more about ancient Greece, whatever. There’s always a rationale for more knowledge about something. It can be a very frustrating thing at times, to decide what you want to do, but somehow or another, when you care enough about something, you can’t help but get thoughts that can be fulfilled.

EL: I’m happy to say, my relationship with Swarthmore College has been one of the most important influences in my life. I know it makes me feel good, I know how much it means to me that I have the opportunity to talk to students who’ve had my scholarships. Even today, there are students who graduated years ago with whom I’m still in contact, and some of them have even started their own scholarships. I think it’s a winning game no matter who’s lucky enough to be able to play it.

DG: Wow. So, kind of shifting gears a little bit, you went to Swarthmore quite a while ago.

EL: One might say that, yes.

DG: How have you seen it change over the years?

EL: Well, I think when I was going there, the cost of going to Swarthmore was not forty-five thousand dollars a year, but it was six hundred dollars a year, if you can believe that. When I went there, there were no African-American students. When I went there, there was a fraternity system, with national fraternities, and they did not admit Jews, specifically. On the other hand, those were the ways in higher education in general at the time, and they have happily been discontinued, and one can be very proud of Swarthmore as an institution, its educational and cultural and environmental policies, that has been encouraged and responded to encouragement to broaden the basis of educational opportunities for everybody that meets its standards.

DG: Well, that’s a great trend.

EL: I think Swarthmore today is in general recognized as one of the very very top jewels of higher education in this country. I take great pride in taking a part in that, and I take great pride in giving students the opportunity to take advantage of that. I find it’s something that I appreciate doing, I’m glad I’m doing it, I happily look forward to doing it more, and I welcome ideas of those associated with Swarthmore who are doing things to make it even better. “Better” is…it may seem a little different, given all the opportunities and advantages that Swarthmore offers — I don’t know how much more could be offered within the capacity of a relatively small student body’s ability to take advantage of those opportunities. But on the other hand, I think students do a great job, I’m very proud to go down there, and I get a great deal of satisfaction in talking with them, getting the benefit of sharing their inspirations.

DG: Okay. Just one last thing: do you prefer “Swatties” or “Swarthmoreans,” as a noun. I hear there’s been some contention on that among the Board of Managers.

EL: I don’t know that it matters; we know who you mean. Times change, and words have different meanings, sounds have different meanings. By the same token, standards of accomplishment tend to be somewhat mobile, maybe get a little bit shifted towards originality, with the changing times and experiences of students. I’m always very pleased when students are involved in creating what other people might think are problems or issues, and these people have a right to disagree. I think that anyone who goes to Swarthmore has a great privilege and opportunity, which I think is no less shared by those people like me who are fortunate enough to support the institution. It’s a very nice thing to think about yourself, how you’d like to feel as someone….The power of positive thinking adds something to it, to the environment. It’s the power of students to be more creative.

What do you think about donors having their names on buildings? Let us know in the comments!

0 thoughts on “College Corner with Eugene Lang

  • January 24, 2008 at 7:07 am

    This is one of the most entertaining articles I read all year. You should totally interview lots of Swat alums; I think the readers would love it!

  • January 29, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    This is fantastic. Such a surreal beginning, though! But well worth it.

  • February 3, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    Eugene Lang is Socrates!


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