Portland State University tantalized by $100 million gift that vanished – OregonLive.com
Portland State had invited Gov. Kate Brown and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales to a Tuesday morning news conference announcing the unrestricted contribution by a man described as a former student. The gift would have almost doubled the school’s endowment and supported students, faculty and research.
But the festive mood on the South Park Blocks soured when the would-be benefactor did not deliver. Two days after the planned announcement, the $100 million windfall still hasn’t materialized in the PSU Foundation‘s bank account.
Portland State officials say they hope to resurrect the gift, or at least a portion of it. But they’re bracing themselves for the possibility that the game-changing donation is dead.
The sudden change illustrates the mercurial, unpredictable nature of big-time philanthropy. Unforeseen financial and personal issues can prompt 11th-hour changes in plans. Public universities increasingly depend on private donations — and the eccentricities and changing plans of private donors — to cover expansions, renovations and even basic student services.
“Some individuals offer gifts to universities, institutions and charities, but they don’t deliver a gift for personal or financial reasons that they wish to keep private,” Portland State spokesman Chris Broderick said Thursday in a written statement. “Ultimately, it’s up to a donor to make a gift or not.”
The contribution would have been the third largest donation ever by an Oregonian to any charity in the state, tying with a 2007 gift to the University of Oregon by Nike co-founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
The donation would have been unusual not only for being anonymous and for being available to spend on anything in an era when many philanthropists revel in publicity and channel gifts to specific programs and buildings that bear their names.
Portland State informed the Oregonian/OregonLive beforehand of the gift with the understanding the news was embargoed until the conclusion of Tuesday’s press conference. When the press conference never happened, and another full day elapsed, reporters set out to independently determine what happened, over Portland State’s objections.
The governor’s office confirmed that Brown had been invited to an Aug. 18 press conference at Portland State to announce a major donation, and then later informed that the event was cancelled.
So who is this deep-pocketed donor? Why did he back out? For now, those answers remain shrouded in mystery.
In background documents provided before the planned press conference, the university described the donor as a former Portland State student, which could mean that he did not graduate. He credits Portland State as the important foundation for the success he achieved in business, the university said.
Despite his status as a non-traditional student, the school said, he was warmly welcomed by professors who encouraged his research.
“He is a perfect example that non-traditional students, given access to renowned professors and experiences can achieve tremendous success,” the background documents said.
The gift was to help build a culture of philanthropy at Portland State and to provide support so the school would continue to grow and thrive well into the future. The would-be donor believed that Portland State, whose motto is, “Let knowledge serve the city,” would directly benefit his native Portland in myriad ways.
The number of Portlanders and former Portland State students with that much in liquid assets is small.
Jordan Schnitzer, who attended Portland State at one point, could fit the bill. But Schnitzer, heir to a steel-company fortune, could hardly have been considered non-traditional.
Billionaire Tim Boyle, Columbia Sportswear chief executive, may have $100 million to spare. But according to the Portland State registrar, no one fitting Boyle’s description attended the university. Knight and his son, Travis, also don’t fit the criteria.
One man who would appear to fit the description in every respect is Portland State trustee Peter Stott, a Portland financier who has built a fortune in timber, real estate and trucking. Stott has also been an active Portland State donor. The school’s athletic hall, for example, bears his name.
But Stott said he’s not the guy.
“First, it’s not me,” he said. “Second, I don’t know who it is. It’s a well-kept secret. I didn’t know anything about it.”
Public universities have never been more dependent on philanthropy. An erosion of public funding has forced schools such as Portland State to lean on students and wealthy alumni for more of their revenue.
Administrators at Portland State are working to transcend the school’s commuter campus roots to become a full-service university with national reach. They planned to use the money to boost the school’s relatively paltry $57 million endowment to almost $100 million.
The school wanted to use the interest to support faculty, research and scholarships. It also intended to expand student career and internship services, help grad students and recruiting and support community college students.
But plans didn’t mention addressing costs that most concern students: tuition, housing and textbooks. Protesters disrupted meetings this year in which trustees raised tuition 4.2 percent, which the school subsequently trimmed to 3.1 percent.
— Richard Read and Jeff Manning