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Jim Kenyon: The Osher-ILEAD Name Game

Dartmouth is no Harvard, for better and for worse. But we already knew that. It does, however, point up the different ways the two Ivy League schools handled the naming rights to their respective adult learning institutes.

In May, the Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth, known as ILEAD, announced with great fanfare (free pens and bookmarks for everyone who attended the luncheon) that the college had received a $2 million endowment grant from the San Francisco-based Bernard Osher Foundation.

The gift was contingent on ILEAD, which has been part of Dartmouth for nearly 25 years, changing its name to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Dartmouth, or Osher@Dartmouth, for short. ILEAD’s 1,700 members were not given a say in the name change, maybe because its leadership council and the college decided there were 2 million good reasons not to risk a vote that could have killed the deal.

I’d also heard through the ILEAD grapevine that Harvard had considered signing up with Osher at one time as well. I called Leonie Gordon, who has run the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement for 18 years. She explained that in 2005, Harvard applied for a $1 million grant from Osher, which was accepted. But in exchange for the money, Osher insisted on naming rights. That was a deal-breaker, said Gordon.

“Harvard said (to Osher), ‘We do not allow our institutes to change their name for $1 million,’ ” Gordon told me. At Harvard, it takes $20 million to get your name on an institute, she said. (Apparently, it’s more a matter of the number of zeros on the check than the principle.)

I called David Blazevich, Osher’s senior program officer, at the foundation’s headquarters in San Francisco. He wasn’t much interested in talking about the Harvard deal that blew up, but Dartmouth was a different matter. “We’re happy to have them in our portfolio,” he said. “The program has strong leadership and is well supported by the university.”

The Bernard Osher Foundation, which was founded in 1977, has given hundreds of millions of dollars to higher education institutions, the arts and medical research. Osher, who is in his late 80s, grew up in Maine and graduated from Bowdoin College. He made much of his fortune, estimated at around $1 billion, in the savings and loan business. His foundation has become the Starbucks of lifelong learning institutes; there seems to be one on just about every college campus. Dartmouth is the 118th Osher institute — but the first Ivy League school to accept the foundation’s your-name-for-a-fat-check offer.

“I was absolutely floored,” said former ILEAD president Helen Bridge, who headed the leadership council in the mid-2000s. “It wasn’t done in an open way.”

ILEAD (whoops, I mean Osher) President Stew Wood, a retired Episcopal bishop from Michigan, said he’s had “very little feedback that was negative, and I live at Kendal.”

I’m sure with time even the dissenters will grow to accept the name change. Still, I wonder: Did ILEAD and college officials drive a hard enough bargain with Osher?

“We weren’t given any indication that we could negotiate,” said Wood.

I guess that if Harvard was offered only $1 million in 2005, Dartmouth made out OK. But that was nearly a decade ago, and just like college tuition, prices have gone up a lot since then.

Tom Blinkhorn, who serves on the lifelong education institute’s planning committee, voiced his opposition to the deal at a leadership council meeting in October 2012. I followed up last week with Blinkhorn, a retired World Bank senior manager who occasionally writes for the Valley News. “I think Osher is a worthy entity,” he said, “but to change the name for $2 million?

“We sold out too cheaply.”

I agree. I’m just not sure ILEAD had much choice.

Since 1990, the institute has provided affordable courses and lectures to mostly older residents. Nearly 200 courses, which over the years have ranged from European history to tips on solving crossword puzzles, has made the institute a vibrant part of the Upper Valley. Its popular summer lecture series begins Wednesday in Hanover.

But there’s a downside to charging only $55 for an eight-week class. This year, the institute is having to use $26,000 from its small reserve fund to balance its $387,000 budget.

The Osher grant provides a degree of financial security. Although the $2 million principal can’t be touched, the money will become part of the Dartmouth endowment and should return roughly $100,000 a year to the institute through investment income.

The alternative to taking Osher’s money and keeping the ILEAD name? Embarking on a major fundraising campaign to build up an endowment of its own.

In the 1990s, Harvard’s lifelong learning institute conducted a capital campaign that raised $1 million, said Gordon. It also conducts an annual fundraising drive, which brought in $95,000 last year.

By comparison, past ILEAD annual appeals have typically raised about $20,000. Dartmouth allows the institute to seek contributions from members only a few months a year, said Pete Bleyler, who engineered the affiliation with Osher while he was president of ILEAD prior to Wood. The college doesn’t want the lifelong learning institute’s fundraising efforts to “interfere” with its own annual campaign, said Bleyler.

“We’re limited by the fundraising that we can do,” said Wood.

“What Osher does — both in terms of events and the timing of those events — must fit into the larger strategic framework of all of Dartmouth College’s fundraising,” said college spokesman Justin Anderson. “Basically, because they are part of Dartmouth, they can’t be out there on their own raising money in ways we don’t know about, at times we don’t know about, at events we don’t know about.”

Bleyler and Wood, both Dartmouth alums, said the college has been very generous over the years, particularly by providing classroom space for free. During negotiations with Osher, Dartmouth was a “strong advocate for us,” said Wood. Dartmouth even waived the hefty administrative fees that it usually takes on gifts to different entities of the college.

I can’t help but think that Dartmouth’s benevolence was a bit self-serving. From the college’s viewpoint, the lifelong learning institute, although part of the college, is still competition for almighty endowment dollars.

Why’s that?

The institute tends to attract older people of means, many of whom have Dartmouth ties. Given a choice, some might opt to contribute directly to the lifelong learning institute rather than to the college.

Dartmouth wouldn’t want that to happen. A name change was a small price to pay to make sure it won’t.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com .