Editorial: The case for ‘Anonymous Hall’

  • An artist's rendering shows rooftop solar panels on the renovated Dana Hall at Dartmouth's north campus. (Courtesy Dartmouth College)

Published: 2/12/2020 10:10:23 PM
Modified: 2/12/2020 10:10:14 PM

Is Dartmouth giving anonymity a bad name? Some people seem to think so in the wake of the college’s decision to rename a recently renovated building “Anonymous Hall.”

“I think this represents a new level of vacuousness,” emeritus professor Edward M. Bradley told staff writer David Corriveau last week. And a couple of students Corriveau interviewed seemed nonplussed by the decision. “I feel like it’s a first,” said one, and he is probably right.

But the college says it is merely following the wishes of the “generous lead donor” to the $28 million renovation of the hall formerly known as Dana, who wanted to “recognize generations of alumni who have aspired to support Dartmouth through deeds large and small, known and unknown.”

Certainly there are situations in which anonymous donations are inappropriate, such as when governmental bodies propose to accept them. In that case, the public has a right to know the identity of the benefactor lest some form of preferential treatment be afforded to the philanthropist in return.

But, skeptics notwithstanding, in this case we find it refreshing that the college has a large-scale secret admirer. The standard quid pro quo in academia is that in return for their largesse, benefactors get to bask in the reflected glory of having their names inscribed on a building. In this age of celebrity, precious few mega-donors display that “passion for anonymity” that was an admired characteristic of advisers and bureaucrats during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Dartmouth appears to have attracted a rarity.

There is also a rich religious tradition of anonymity in charitable giving, as in the New Testament Book of Matthew: “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth, that thine alms may be in secret.” This, of course, is a reference to charity given to the poor, something that Dartmouth definitely is not. But maybe the point holds.

Moreover, we think Anonymous Hall might find favor with the English Department, given that one of the glories of the language is the epic Beowulf. The earliest known long work of literature in English, the identity of its anonymous author is shrouded in the mists of antiquity.

Dartmouth also will never find itself in the uncomfortable position of Tufts University, which last year chiseled off the Sackler name from buildings as the culpability of the family business, Purdue Pharma, in the opioid epidemic became clear. We are not suggesting that this consideration was at work in the Anonymous Hall decision, only that anonymity precludes controversy.

And, of course, naming a building for someone is best done when that person is known and revered in whatever community is conferring the honor. Take, for example, last weekend’s dedication of Windsor’s old high school gym in honor of Harry Ladue, father of the town’s recreation department and its chief for 25 years. Harry Ladue Gymnasium has a nice ring to it and will continue to for generations to come. On the other hand, too many college buildings are named for people whose chief claim to distinction is accumulating a lot of money and being willing to part with some of it in the hope of immortalizing themselves — or guaranteeing their posterity admission to the institution down through the generations.

But if the Dartmouth community really feels that Anonymous Hall invites derision, we suggest that the college take the opportunity to make the naming a teachable moment.

The template we have in mind is the sculpture that stands in the courtyard of Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Va. It is called Kryptos — the Greek word for hidden — and consists of an 865-character encrypted message cut into a scroll of copper. It is said to contain a riddle within a riddle that is known only to the authors and the agency’s director. In the 30 years since Kryptos was dedicated, only three of the sculpture’s four panels have been decoded. The fourth has so far defied decryption, although the sculptor, Jim Sanborn, who devised the codes with the aid of Edward Scheidt, retired chairman of the CIA’s cryptographic center, has periodically provided clues.

Given that Anonymous Hall temporarily houses a section of the college’s computer science department while it waits for its own building to be completed (to be named Big Data Haul?), how about drafting a professor to encrypt a message with clues to the donor’s identity, carving the letters into the building’s walls and inviting students to unravel the puzzle?

Better a riddle than ridicule.

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