Regent questions plan to rename UM law school

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KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) — A Montana Board of Regents member questioned Thursday whether a proposal to rename the University of Montana School of Law for a $10 million donor received proper public vetting.

The university is asking the board to approve naming the school after Great Falls attorney Alexander Blewett III, whose donation would create an endowed chair in consumer law, endow a discretionary fund and provide $1.5 million to match scholarship donations.

The University of Montana Foundation negotiated the donation, which would raise the law school's endowment to $21 million. The law school faculty and the university's faculty senate unanimously approved the name change, university President Royce Engstrom said.

But Regent Martha Sheehy, a Billings attorney, questioned why the public was not involved in the deliberations on whether to sell the school's name and for how much. The proposed contract came to the board as a finished product that the public has not had an opportunity to see, and Sheehy said neither the board nor the public know any other items that were being negotiated.

Now the board is being asked to vote on a permanent name change during its meeting Thursday and Friday in Kalispell just days after the proposal was announced, she said.

"If we make that decision, we need to take more time to consider whether that is the right thing to do," she said.

Sheehy said she's received comments from several attorneys who thanked Blewett for his gift but who also asked that the school's name be left alone.

In response, Engstrom said the $10 million donation is a "transformative" opportunity for current and future students, but the school had to protect the identity of the donor during the process. The negotiations between Blewett and the university foundation were conducted in confidence until the donation was finalized, Engstrom said.

Higher Education Commissioner Clayton Christian said there is a distinction between the private negotiations of the university foundation and the public process of the board's approval of the name.

Regent Fran Albrecht said public participation is important for the regents' meetings, but there are reasons privacy is needed when cultivating donations, and the board needs to be careful about making the process too difficult for donors.

But Regent Jeff Krauss pointed out what he saw as two problems. First, the board doesn't have a policy on what gifts to take and from whom. Secondly, the 48-hour notice the board provides for its public meetings isn't enough time for full public participation in a state the size of Montana.

"I think it's undeniable the $10 million gift will benefit the law students," Krauss said. "I have to think some more about whether or not we have allowed the public to chime in."

The board did not immediately vote on the proposal Thursday afternoon.

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