It sounds too good to be true — a University of New Hampshire library cataloguer thriftily munched Fritos and microwave dinners and drove a 1992 Plymouth while slowly amassing a $4 million fortune, which he bequeathed to his longtime employer and alma mater.
Depending on whom you ask, though, the story ended up being too good to last. Upon his death in 2015, New Hampshire cataloger Robert Morin donated his $4 million estate to the university from which he graduated in 1963 and where he worked for nearly 50 years. News outlets across the country published glowing accounts of his donation.
But to hear some tell it, the glow has faded.
That’s because of the way New Hampshire decided to spend Morin’s gift. The university dedicated $2.5 million to an expanded, centrally located career center, it said when it announced the gift two weeks ago. It put $100,000 toward the Dimond Library, where Morin worked, fulfilling the only specific spending request he attached to his donation. And with much of the remaining gift, the university wrote a controversial check.
It put $1 million toward a video scoreboard for its new $25 million football stadium.
To many, the football scoreboard seems out of sync with the life of a library employee with a reported passion for movies and books, one said to have read 1,938 books published in chronological order from the decade starting in 1930. Others have argued it is simply wasteful spending, funneling valuable unrestricted money into athletics instead of important academic pursuits.
The university has sought to bridge the gap between the image of the tweed-wearing librarian and that of the macho athletic donor by saying Morin was a football fan by the end of his life. He started watching football games on television while living in an assisted living center in the 15 months before he died, university officials said, learning the rules and names of players and teams. University officials have also pointed out that Morin specifically did not give them instructions on how to spend most of his gift, except for the $100,000 for the library, trusting them and their priorities.
But that hasn’t prevented backlash. One particularly blistering blog post by New Hampshire graduate Claire Cortese — illustrated by dollars being tossed into a toilet — says the scoreboard spending shows the university needs to check its priorities. Cortese details what she sees as high student debt among alumni and questionable university spending in recent years on amenities such as a light-up table for a dining hall and a new logo. She goes on to argue that the $1 million for the scoreboard could have been spent on research grants, student meal plans or scholarships for students — she points out the sum is enough to pay for four-year full-ride scholarships for 14 in-state students at New Hampshire’s quoted tuition and fee level of more than $17,000 per year.
“Ultimately, the school’s administrative decision to spend a quarter of Morin’s generous donation on a inconsequential trinket for the athletic department is a complete disgrace to the spirit and memory of Robert Morin,” Cortese wrote. “As a Wildcat, I feel deeply saddened and honestly completely ashamed of my alma mater for this.”
Some social media comments were critical as well. Posters on the university’s Facebook page said it was “too bad more of his bequest didn’t go directly to the library where he spent his career,” questioned calling the scoreboard a university priority and said the library was in need of more computers.
The concerns weren’t just online. They also came up in the most recent meeting of New Hampshire’s Faculty Senate, according to Chair Dante Scala, a political science professor.
The Faculty Senate hasn’t taken an official stand on the scoreboard spending. But faculty members raised the issue multiple times at a Monday meeting, Scala said.
“It’s a matter of concern, and it plays into a larger issue that I’m sure you’re seeing at a lot of institutions about investing in athletic facilities versus academics and academic facilities,” Scala said.
Much of the feedback on the gift has been positive — even online, according to Deborah Dutton, vice president for advancement at the University of New Hampshire. She acknowledged that there has been negative feedback. But she pointed out that Morin did not restrict most of his gift for a specific purpose — the only restricted money was the $100,000 for the library, which was dedicated to scholarships for work-study students, support for staff members continuing library science studies and upgrades to a multimedia room.
In fact, Morin’s financial adviser told the university that the donor resisted restricting more of the funding, Dutton said.
“The language we got was really about the president having discretion to use this gift in the way he or she sees fit,” Dutton said. “At the same time, we wanted to try to honor the other parts of Bob’s life. He was an employee for 50 years.”
Dutton referenced Morin’s late-in-life football appreciation, drawing a link between the donor and the scoreboard project. She also said the football stadium will benefit more than New Hampshire’s athletic department. It will host high school playoff games, cultural programs and other events.
“The football stadium was to the fore because it is not just for the football team,” Dutton said. “It is first and foremost for the university community, students, faculty, the local town and for the state.”
As for why the university did not put more of Morin’s money into the library, Dutton pointed out that about $500,000 of the gift has yet to be allocated. She also said the library was the one area where the donor had given direction.
“He knew exactly how much he would be giving,” she said. “We felt like he was clear: $100,000 for the library.”
Morin’s gift was a relative windfall for the University of New Hampshire, which has a traditionally weak fund-raising track record. It currently raises around $35 million a year, up from the $20 million range five years ago and $10 million to $14 million per year in the decade before that. Its endowment market value stands at just under $345 million spread across 1,074 different funds, including both foundation and university system funds. Just 13 percent is unrestricted.
It is very difficult to raise unrestricted money, said Amir Pasic, dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Donors generally want to give for their specific passions.
With that in mind, it becomes easier to see why New Hampshire would invite some criticism by publishing details of the large unrestricted gift and how it was spent. Publicizing large gifts can be a way for universities to try to find more donations.
“Fund-raisers and universities like to be able to announce a gift so that others can follow in their footsteps,” Pasic said. “It has kind of a demonstration effect.”
But publicity ramps up pressure on spending judgments by inviting public scrutiny. New Hampshire knew scrutiny could come, Dutton said.
“Any time you put anything out there with specificity, there is risk,” she said. “We anticipated that there would be people who might not agree with the choices we made, but we felt like it was important to be transparent and to celebrate what Bob has done and to celebrate his life.”