Chalk it up to a learning experience for the University of Montana.
An exceptionally generous gift and the university's decision to honor that gift by renaming its School of Law after the donor should have been cause for unbridled celebration. Unfortunately, those celebrations have been tempered by valid concerns about the lack of public involvement in the renaming decision.
Earlier this month, the university announced that its Law School had received a $10 million donation from a former student to create a special consumer law and protection program. This new program will no doubt help grow the school's reputation for providing a stellar education in the field of law.
But it's a reputation that will now have a single individual's name attached to it, after the university signed a contract, approved by the Board of Regents, to rename the school the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law.
UM's Law School is renowned throughout Montana for preparing first-class attorneys, and Alexander Blewett III is a shining example. The Great Falls attorney is distinguished as the only lawyer from Montana to be admitted to the national Inner Circle of Advocates and was named Trial Lawyer of the Year twice by the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, among other plaudits. His family maintains strong ties to the School of Law; his father is an alum, as are his sons, Anders and Drew. And Blewett has been a steadfast supporter of his alma mater for many years; last year he and his wife, Andrea, gave the law school $800,000 in scholarship aid.
As Regent Martha Sheehy said, "There is no man that I can think of that deserves this more." Yet Sheehy, herself a UM Law School alum and a lawyer in Billings, abstained from voting on whether to rename the school. At the regents' meeting, she echoed the opinions of others who felt the public was deprived of its right to participate in this important decision.
The other regents present at the meeting all voted in favor of the name change. And, according to UM President Royce Engstrom, the renaming received similar unanimous support within the School of Law and Main Hall.
Every college in the nation faces a similar dilemma when presented with large donations, especially universities facing budget shortfalls such as the $5.7 million deficit the University of Montana is grappling with now. Gifts from private donors help offset these shortfalls, keeping scholarship programs funded and schools robust with specialized programs.
However, publicly funded universities have an obligation to the public, even when they accept private donations. The UM Law School is a public property, and no piece of it ought to be sold without meaningful public consideration.
We understand that requiring public disclosure can be a deterrent for some donors who wish to protect their privacy, as interim law school Dean Greg Munro pointed out and Regent Fran Albrecht further explained. Albrecht, who has many years of experience fundraising for nonprofits, asked her fellow regents to be careful about "making the process so difficult that it perhaps inhibits folks from coming forward."
That may be unequivocally true in the nonprofit sector, but the university exists in the public sector. As a publicly financed institution, it is accountable first and foremost to the public. In the future, it ought to go the extra mile to include that public in decisions of such significance as the name of a premier program.