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Colleges bewildered by anonymous major gifts

One caveat: Don't try to identify donor

By Justin Pope
Associated Press / April 24, 2009
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It's the question on everyone's lips in philanthropy: Who is the mysterious donor giving away millions of dollars to at least a dozen colleges across the country?

A circle of successful businesswomen? A publicity-shy (or playful) billionaire? Oprah Winfrey?

What is so unusual is that not even the colleges themselves know the answer. But the parlor game is afoot, with only one real clue: So far, all the colleges are led by women.

Coincidence? Unlikely. With about 23 percent of US college presidents women, the odds of a dozen randomly selected institutions all having female leaders are 1 in 50 million.

Melissa Berman, president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors in New York, thinks the donor might be "a woman who maybe grew up in an era in which the opportunity to go to college was not taken for granted by women, and who feels that women in leadership positions are important motivators for women to be able to achieve their potential."

Brian O'Rourke, director of development at Clemson University in South Carolina, imagines "a group of high-powered women that want to make sure women presidents in higher education are successful."

"My gut tells me it's a group of people sitting around saying, `Let's just make a huge difference,' " he said. Clemson has not received a contribution from the mystery donor.

The gifts, ranging from $1 million to perhaps $10 million, and totaling up to $68.5 million so far, have arrived over the past seven weeks in similarly secretive fashion at colleges around the country, including Purdue in Indiana, Montclair State in New Jersey, and the University of Southern Mississippi. All were contacted by a law firm or other intermediary and given a highly unusual condition: College officials had to promise - in writing, in some cases - not to try to find out the donor's identity.

The donations arrived in the form of cashier's checks, or checks from law firms or other intermediaries. In most cases, the donor specified that the money be used for financial aid.

Michigan State University, which has a woman president, may be the 13th and latest recipient. It announced yesterday that it has been given $10 million anonymously. Philanthropy specialists are thrilled but flummoxed. None knew of donors who had previously singled out colleges led by women. None could think of anything else the schools have in common.

"It could be this person wants to support female leaders of institutions of higher ed, but one then starts wondering why these and not others," said Dennis Cross, vice president of university advancement at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, which is not one of the lucky recipients.

A few theories have popped up on websites, including talk show host Winfrey and someone connected with disgraced financier Bernard Madoff.

As for whether the donor is someone scandalous trying to hide his identity and perhaps not embarrass the colleges, New York University law professor Harvey Dale said that's possible, but it doesn't fit the personality type of most crooks. Colleges, Dale said, are generally not required to do deep due diligence on gifts. In this case at least one college checked with US officials to make sure it wasn't dirty money.