YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


When the name on the building is mud

Felon Henry Samueli is a ticklish subject for schools he endowed.

July 11, 2008|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

What's in a name? A lot, at least at two engineering schools in Southern California named after high-tech billionaire and generous donor Henry Samueli.

The Samueli name could be stripped from engineering schools at UCLA and UC Irvine as a result of his recent guilty plea to a felony charge of lying to financial regulators. A review of the issue is being launched by the University of California's general counsel, officials said.

The two engineering schools were named for Samueli after the Broadcom Corp. co-founder and his wife donated a total of $50 million to those programs in 1999. Samueli, who earned his doctorate in electrical engineering at UCLA and is a professor there, is widely admired for his pioneering work in telecommunications microchip technology and his extensive philanthropy.

But his guilty plea last month to making a false statement to federal authorities investigating the alleged backdating of stock options awarded to employees at Irvine-based Broadcom has triggered a review of the name of each school, UC spokesman Brad Hayward said. UC policy on such matters is vague, and questions of timing and what factors should be considered have yet to be determined.

"Quite honestly, this is new territory for us, so we don't have answers to a lot of specific questions at this point," Hayward said. He said he and other UC officials could not recall a case in which a donor's name was removed from a building or program at the university because of a crime.

In this era of corporate scandals, however, other universities have faced similar dilemmas as big donors have gotten into trouble. Schools' responses have included doing nothing, excising names from buildings and returning donations.

It would be an uncommon and drastic step for UC to remove Samueli's name from plaques, brochures and websites and would take much delicate discussion, said Timothy McDonough, spokesman at the American Council on Education, a higher education advocacy group. "These kinds of decisions are a very big deal," he said.

According to rules adopted in 2002, the naming of any UC building or program "must be consistent with the university's role as a public trust." If circumstances "change substantially so that the continued use of that name may compromise the public trust," UC's general counsel must consult with the state's attorney general.

But there is no requirement that the university drop a tarnished donor's name, and some say that such a move would be unlikely in Samueli's case, given the limited public consequences of his violation and an otherwise untarnished career.

Samueli, 53, declined to comment on the matter Thursday. His attorney, Gordon Greenberg, did not return calls.

Samueli is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 18, and federal prosecutors have recommended that he receive five years' probation and pay $12.2 million in fines and penalties.

Officials at UC Irvine's Henry Samueli School of Engineering and UCLA's Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science said they could not comment on the name review. Samueli has been on unpaid leave from UCLA for a decade.

It is clear, however, that many people at the schools still hold Samueli in high regard. In a statement after Samueli's guilty plea, UCLA engineering dean Vijay K. Dhir noted Samueli's "exemplary service" to UC. "I hope that a closure will soon come to the legal issues faced by him," Dhir said.

Benjamin Medvitz, chairman of UC Irvine's engineering alumni council, said his group had discussed the issue but found little support for a name change. The Samueli title, he said, reflects "a major gift to the school and the fact that he still does a lot of good things for the community."

On the other hand, UCLA aerospace engineering student Pavan Narsai favors a change. "I don't think it reflects well on UCLA to keep his name," he said.

At the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Samueli Theater was named for the family after a large gift in 2001. Terry Dwyer, the center's president, said Thursday that there had been no discussion of changing the theater's name.

Samueli owns the National Hockey League Anaheim Ducks but has been suspended from playing any role with the team at least through his sentencing. The league will decide afterward whether further action is needed.

Around the nation, other campuses have had to weigh the nature of donors' offenses and the public reaction to a name change, experts said.

"They may be talking about drunk driving versus insider stock trading versus homicide," said McDonough of the American Council on Education. "Much is going to depend on the specifics of the case and the impact of the case on the campus community."

Colleges must decide whether the "value of the gift and what it is doing to the institution outweighs the negatives of being associated with a particular donor," said Rae Goldsmith, communications vice president at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a Washington group.

Los Angeles Times Articles