KALISPELL – A member of the Montana Board of Regents protested Thursday that a proposal to rename the University of Montana School of Law for a generous donor was not offered to the public for meaningful consideration.
Regent Martha Sheehy questioned the renaming process even as she praised Alexander Blewett III and his family for their $10 million gift and "mind-boggling" generosity.
However, the Billings lawyer said the public has the right to deliberate when a public body sells a public asset, and "every single part of this was done in private."
"If we're going to sell the name over the door, the public has a right to be at the table," Sheehy said.
Sheehy, an alum of the UM School of Law, also questioned naming rights in general as well as the terms of the university's contract with Blewett.
Her comments came as a committee of the Board of Regents discussed the proposal to rename, "in perpetuity," the UM School of Law as the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana.
The contract, attached to this story on Missoulian.com, notes other related gifts that will carry the Blewett name.
The board will vote on the matter Friday, but in discussion Thursday, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian urged the Board of Regents to look only at its own role in the process.
He said the board had followed its own policy in making information available to the public, and it did not need to take into account the actions of other parties that approved the proposal.
"I don't honestly believe they have any authority to do anything. I think this board holds the authority to name," Christian said.
Earlier, the School of Law faculty, UM Faculty Senate, School of Law dean, and UM provost and president all signed off on the renaming. The School of Law faculty and UM Faculty Senate were unanimous in support, according to UM President Royce Engstrom.
At Thursday's meeting, Engstrom said the gift is "an extremely exciting opportunity" for UM and the School of Law. The contract is with Alexander Blewett III and Andrea Blewett of Great Falls.
The procedure UM followed in the School of Law renaming was identical to other recent namings, as far as he can see, the president said. He also said it fits with the scale of donations that led to renamings at other law schools, such as in Oregon, Florida, Indiana and Maryland.
Philanthropy plays a critical role as state schools work to supplement their income, Engstrom said. However, he said the change in name would not give the family any authority or control over the institution.
"It does not mean that someone else owns the law school. It is the state of Montana's law school," Engstrom said.
Before outlining problems with the process, Regent Sheehy lauded "Zander" Blewett. Last year, the Blewetts gave the UM law school $800,000 for scholarships to help students who received their undergraduate degrees from Montana State University attend law school at UM.
"There is no man that I can think of that deserves this more," Sheehy said.
At the same time, she said Montana's open meeting and public participation laws afford taxpayers the right to participate in the renaming decision.
Yet the public did not have enough information to consider the proposal in time to comment, Sheehy said. The contract was not attached to the agenda, the agenda item was difficult to find, and it was posted with 48 hours' notice "when most of us had to drive eight hours to get to the meeting."
"I think the law school needs to be named by the people of the state of Montana. And if they choose to name it after Alexander Blewett III, that would be fantastic. But they haven't been at the table," Sheehy said.
And she said leaving the public out of the process demeans the gift.
Sheehy also questioned the terms of the contract.
She pointed out that some schools, such as the University of California, Berkeley, have reversed the naming of a law school after extensive study.
In this case, Sheehy said the public not only didn't get to consider the renaming, it didn't get to weigh in on the value of the gift or see naming guidelines from the UM Foundation.
In fact, she said, the deal includes multiple named gifts in addition to the school: the Blewett Endowed Faculty Chair in Consumer Law and Protection; the Blewett Consumer Law and Protection Program Fund; the Blewett Scholarship Matching Fund; and the Blewett Dean's Discretionary Fund.
In response, the UM Foundation's John Mudd disputed that all the gifts Sheehy described would carry the family's name. Mudd, director of development and alumni relations for the School of Law, said he wanted to correct Sheehy.
"Are you ready to correct the contract?" Sheehy said. "The contract names those after Mr. Blewett."
"I'll stand corrected," Mudd said.
Having the naming guidelines on hand is important because part of the value in naming the school may have been "eaten up" by other naming opportunities offered in the contract, she said. Sheehy said the guidelines would allow the regents to do their due diligence.
In response, President Engstrom agreed to provide the guidelines.
Others at the meeting said private dealings are important when dealing with major donors. Interim law school Dean Greg Munro said secrecy is paramount in negotiating large gifts.
"The negotiation of a gift of this size is being carried out right up until the last minute, and secrecy is a very important thing," Munro said.
For one thing, he said, it protects the donor's privacy, and it also shields the family from other parties who may decide they want to get involved in the negotiations. In response to a question about how students were involved, Munro said negotiators could not see a viable way to get input from students and protect the donor at the same time.
"We didn't think we could be public," Munro said.
Regent Fran Albrecht, who has long raised money for nonprofits, said she wanted to personally express gratitude to the Blewett family. She also said she wanted to caution the board to consider donors' perspectives as it moved forward with other opportunities.
"We need to be careful about making the process so difficult that it perhaps inhibits folks from coming forward," Albrecht said.
Albrecht is executive director of Providence Montana Health Foundation and recently taught nonprofit administration at UM. In the field of development, she said, there are real reasons to protect donors, and cultivating those relationships is important.
"I want to make sure we honor that moving forward," Albrecht said.