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Editorial: Selling the Norris Cotton Cancer Center’s Soul

  • Norris Cotton in an undated photograph. Cotton was a Republican U.S. Senator from Lebanon, N.H., who served from 1954 to 1975, and helped secure a $3 million federal grant in 1970 to build what was rural New England's first regional cancer center in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Rarely does Dartmouth College fail to fully capitalize on an opportunity to wring enormous sums of money out of superwealthy donors, but that may just be the case with the prospective auction of naming rights to the cancer center in Lebanon operated by its medical school and the Dartmouth-Hitchcock health system.

But wait, you say, doesn’t the cancer center already have a name? Well, yes, it does. It’s the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, named after the longtime U.S. senator from New Hampshire who secured a $3 million federal grant in 1970 to build it. Cotton, who lived in Lebanon and is buried in the School Street Cemetery, considered establishment of the cancer center the crowning achievement of his 26-year career in Congress.

Alas, institutional life is long, grateful memory is short. As part of its current $3 billion capital campaign, Dartmouth is hoping to raise $100 million for the cancer center, and officials have made clear that depending on the size of the gift, the highest bidder could have the institution renamed in his or her honor.

This is hardly unprecedented. In 2012, Dartmouth Medical School became known as the The Audrey and Theodor Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth as a result of a donation from the Geisel family believed to be in excess of $200 million. The name does not exactly trip off the tongue, but it is a blessing that the family did not insist on calling it the Dr. Seuss School of Medicine, in honor of the late Theodor Geisel, the children’s book author who graduated from Dartmouth in 1925. (We wonder in the present case whether an anonymous donor of sufficient generosity could effect a name change to The Anonymous Cancer Center.)

A Dartmouth spokeswoman told staff writer Nora Doyle-Burr that the college has been in touch with Cotton’s extended family and that they support the capital campaign’s goals. Maybe so, although a stepdaughter in Maine whom Doyle-Burr reached was silent on the subject when asked. But there is bound to be an outcry from longtime Lebanon residents and perhaps patients from all over the region for whom the name “Norris Cotton” has become synonymous with “hope” in the face of a terrible disease. For example, Karen Cervantes, of Lebanon, a longtime Republican Party activist and official, told Doyle-Burr that, “I just think it would be an absolute insult to go and have somebody buy a name.” It was named for Norris Cotton, she said, and “you just don’t arbitrarily throw that out to whoever has the most money.”

Actually, you do, if you are in the higher education business, where the practice of selling off bits of the institutional soul to the highest bidder is increasingly common. Which brings us back to our original point, which is that Dartmouth and D-H might leverage even more money with a more creative approach to packaging. Why not team up the cancer center naming rights with those of its signature fundraising event, The Prouty? It’s now named after Audrey Prouty, a cancer patient who so inspired four of her nurses that they honored her after her death in 1982 by cycling 100 miles through the White Mountains to raise money for cancer research. That was the beginning of an annual event that now draws 4,000 participants.

Sure, some critics — present company included — would carp that it’s unbelievably crass to rename the event, but what wealthy donor would not thrill to the annual spectacle of thousands of participants walking, cycling, rowing and golfing, all while wearing T-shirts bearing his or her name? And we’re pretty sure that Dartmouth is not about to let mere sentiment stand between it and a check made out with a lot of zeros on it.

Anyway, sentimentalists that we are, we’ll miss the Norris Cotton Cancer Center when it’s gone, even as its good work goes on under a new name, fueled by a big infusion of new cash. But we’re bound to say that the donor to the current capital campaign should be aware that “eternally grateful” is merely a figure of speech these days.