University donations, especially rather sizable ones, can sometimes be as much of a blessing to the administration as they are a curse. The benefits are obvious, the consequences are rare and measured.
Consider the case of the University of New Hampshire, who recently used part of a deceased graduate’s donation of his 4 million dollar estate to purchase a new jumbotron for the college’s football stadium. The graduate, Robert Morin, had been a librarian on the campus for over five decades, fostering a love for literature and film that caused others to perceive him as ‘quirky’ or, at the very least, unique.
Before his death, Morin did specify that he would like $100,000 of his fortune to be used for the school’s library, and the administration was sure to use the exact amount — no more, no less, but especially no more — for that purpose. Still, many questioned the decision to use his funds for football when in fact his life’s passions had been rooted elsewhere. Claire Cortese, a UNH alum and avid blogger, expressed her dislike for the decision online, where she criticized the administration’s flimsy excuse that Morin had in his brief retirement begun to follow football closely on TV.
It’s a rare scenario, but only because the donor is dead. Many private universities feel the presence of donors in their decision-making. If they don’t, some donors would argue, they should. Oklahoma State alum Boone Pickens might be one of the most impressive donors in the country, contributing $165 million to OSU football when the athletic director asked him to, in addition to a number of more general donations to the administration. Pickens’ influence on the university, such as deciding how the athletics department spent its money and who it hired, began to irritate students and faculty alike, and many at OSU began to resent the big expectations set out by big donations.
I have no quarrel with universities accepting large donations, and even less of one with the big donors themselves. Some alums strike it rich; some alums have a sincere love for their college that goes beyond “the best years of their life.” The inherent overlap means big donors will always exist, and the inherent costs of running a university (see: budget crisis) means college administrations will always be more than willing to take the money.
I think, when it comes to these donations, communication is essential. If the intent of the donation is restrictive, the college must honor the wishes of the donor. While I don’t necessarily believe it was Robert Morin’s dying wishes that his funds go towards a brand new jumbotron for the football stadium, the University of New Hampshire violated no agreement, legal or otherwise, when it made that call. Morin specified a hundred thousand dollars to go to the library; the school contributed just that much money, interpretation of will be damned.
It is equally integral that donors understand the limitations of their donation. Universities can’t serve a single entity and stay faithful to their current student body, and big donors need to respect that. Most colleges already have guidelines in place concerning just what kind of a say big donors get in terms of university policy, but administrations need to distance themselves from donors whose money is not meant to simply benefit the university, but to give them some sort of power over it.