The University of Montana may soon receive its largest donation ever – a $24 million pledge for the College of Forestry and Conservation and the Global Leadership Initiative – from airline magnate and investor Bill Franke and his family.
Both programs would be renamed in honor of the Franke family.
"This will become the largest single gift ever received by the University of Montana, pending Montana University System Board of Regents approval," UM President Royce Engstrom said in a memo released Tuesday.
It would be more than twice the largest single gift to date – a $10 million donation to the law school in 2015, according to the UM Foundation.
Franke is a co-founder of Indigo Partners, a private investment firm, and has led America West, US Air and Frontier Airlines in the U.S., as well as air carriers in countries around the globe.
Engstrom declined Tuesday to discuss details of the donation until he meets with the faculty Thursday. The memo he released noted the Franke family has spent time on campus and feels a connection to UM.
“The family’s gift is focused on conserving Montana’s natural resources and expanding the global perspective of our students,” Engstrom's memo said.
Franke has ties to the timber industry. He was once CEO of Southwest Forest Industries, which was later purchased and became part of Smurfit-Stone Container. The company had a plant in Frenchtown, which closed in 2010.
Franke also appears to be a nature lover. Earlier this year, Kate Davis of Raptors of the Rockies said Franke called her last summer to tell her a pygmy owl she'd mentioned in a presentation to airline executives at his lakeside home in Ferndale had inspired him to place a design of the tiny owl on some Frontier Airlines aircraft he had purchased.
The Franke family has made other donations to higher education, including a $25 million gift in 2007 to Northern Arizona University's College of Business.
In a 2007 Arizona Republic editorial posted on Northern Arizona University's website, Franke described himself as fortunate in his career and interested in using education to diversify the state's economy and to provide economic opportunities, quality of life, and "a fair shot" to young people, in particular minorities.
"One key reason I selected NAU to receive the gift is the college's focus on service to minorities and first-generation students," Franke said.
"A smaller college that nurtures individual students, NAU embraces Native American, Hispanic and rural young people whose families have had limited opportunities. The majority of these students remain in Arizona after graduation to work and raise their families.
"The state must focus on preparing students from our multicultural heritage for leadership."
Born in Texas, Franke is married to Carolyn D. Franke and the couple has five children, according to the NAU bio.
At UM, the “naming opportunity” is posted on the Faculty Senate agenda for 4 p.m. Thursday in LAW 201. The draft contract was not posted with the agenda item Tuesday afternoon; UM did not provide the proposed agreement Tuesday.
“Faculty Senate will be asked to approve the naming associated with these gifts,” reads the agenda item. “Details about the gift will be provided at the … meeting.”
UM communications director Paula Short said she could not provide specific information Tuesday about how the money would be used to support the College of Forestry and Conservation’s students and programs or the Global Leadership Initiative. However, she said Engstrom will offer additional details at the meeting.
The UM Foundation has directed inquiries about the gift to Main Hall.
Across the country, private donations are becoming more critical to public institutions of higher education. Within the past 18 months, the Board of Regents took up two multi-million-dollar renaming proposals, and both drew some controversy.
In May 2015, UM renamed its law school the Alexander Blewett III School of Law in honor of a family who made a $10 million gift in part to support consumer law. Regents and university officials praised the family’s generosity but at least one regent also noted the public should have the right to participate when the university system renames public assets.
In that case, the contract noted several areas of the law school to be named after the Blewett family, including a program fund, faculty chair, scholarship and discretionary fund.
In May 2016, the regents accepted a controversial $8 million gift from Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte and his wife Susan Gianforte for Montana State University in Bozeman. That proposal renamed the MSU computer science department the Gianforte School of Computing.
According to the president’s memo Tuesday, UM is vetting the Franke proposal to rename the College of Forestry and Conservation and the Global Leadership Initiative. It said UM and the foundation will share more information about the family and their inspiration for the donation “in the weeks to come.”
“The process includes approval by the forestry college faculty and GLI oversight board, as well as pending approval by the Faculty Senate, UM president and provost,” the memo said. “When the Board of Regents addresses this item in November, the public will have the opportunity to participate in the process.”
The interim dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation did not respond to a voicemail requesting comment; the director of the Global Leadership Initiative also did not return a voicemail.