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Emails rekindle $1m UNH scoreboard debate

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 17. 2017 10:33AM

UNH's $1 million high-definition video board was introduced at the opening football game in the new Wildcat Stadium in September 2016. (MARK BOLTON/UNION LEADER FILE)

The stunning $4 million bequest to the University of New Hampshire upon the March 2015 death of its mild-mannered, reclusive librarian Robert Morin is by now the stuff of campus folklore.

The decision to earmark $1 million of it to a video scoreboard at the new Wildcat Stadium was sold to the press and public in August 2016 as appropriate because Morin was a devoted viewer of college football games on television.

But what wasn't known until documents surfaced last week was UNH President Mark Huddleston had already decided by September 2015 that part of Morin's bequest would be spent on the scoreboard.

That's at least nine months before UNH officials came to know of Morin's football fandom during his final months in an assisted-living center.

This development, stemming from a lengthy article in Deadspin, an online sports site, resurrected the controversy over using some of the librarian's unrestricted gift to put the crowning cherry on top of the $25 million football stadium.

State Rep. Barbara Shaw, D-Manchester, is a nine-term member serving on the House Education Committee; she is also on the Manchester Board of Aldermen and chairs its Joint Committee on Education.

"When I first read this story I was appalled to think such an exorbitant amount of a bequest was being spent on a scoreboard when aid for students and lowering tuition costs should have been much more of a priority - especially when the money was coming from a former dedicated employee who was a librarian," Shaw said.

Erika Mantz, UNH director of media relations, said Deadspin's reporting uncovered nothing at all.

"The Deadspin article does not contain any new news," Mantz said in a statement. "The university learned of Mr. Morin's $4 million estate after his death in March 2015. The decision to use $1 million of the estate to purchase a video board was made in the months after that; all but $100,000 of his estate was given to the university unrestricted. The majority of his gift, $2.5 million, was designated to support our career and professional success initiative to help students get great jobs and to meet workforce demand."

The restricted $100,000 went to the UNH library.

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UNH provided the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News with many of the emails, memos and building documents about the scoreboard project and how the Morin gift was announced.

On Sept. 1, 2015, Mark Geuther of UNH's Facilities Project Management said in an email that UNH's top administrator had already decided what to do with part of Morin's estate. "President Huddleston received an undesignated gift to the University," Geuther wrote, "which is being designated for the design, purchase and installation of a video board. ... The current budget for the video board scope of work is $1 million."

It was only nine months later UNH officials would learn about Morin's love of watching football, when Mantz reached out to two of his associates, including Ed Mullen, Morin's financial adviser and 40-year friend.

On March 29, Mantz put out an extensive media campaign involving 12 UNH employees to roll out the Morin gift announcement.

"I have two people to contact tomorrow (per Theresa) who can tell me more about Mr. Morin," Mantz said, referring to Theresa Curry, another UNH administrator.

In a March 30 email, Debbie Dutton, president of the UNH Foundation, underlined why it was important to sell this properly to the public.

"The gift is so large, and he worked in the library and only a relatively small amount is going to the library," Dutton wrote Mantz.

After conducting those interviews, it was Mantz who first made the Morin football link in an Aug. 30, 2016, news release.

"In the last 15 months of his life, Morin lived in an assisted living center where he started watching football games on television, mastering the rules and names of the players and teams," Mantz wrote.

Two days after Inside Higher Ed emailed Mantz about doing a story on the "blowback" over the scoreboard, President Huddleston evoked Morin's sports passion as a reason for earmarking part of his gift to it.

"While no one can or should say that Mr. Morin wanted to direct part of his gift to UNH athletics - again his bequest was specifically undesignated for the most part - this use was certainly consistent with one of his major demonstrated interests," Huddleston wrote in an email to the University System of New Hampshire Board of Trustees.

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UNH Assistant General Counsel Karyl Martin told Deadspin there wasn't much of a paper trail on decisions regarding Morin's estate.

"There are no meeting minutes or similar documentation memorializing deliberations around spending the Morin bequest," Martin wrote.

Mantz took issue with the article, which concluded that UNH had engaged in a marketing campaign to rebut the furor over spending for a football scoreboard.

"With regards to, in your words, a 'marketing campaign,' it is just not true," Mantz said Friday. "The detailed communications plan that was revealed in the Right to Know (request) is standard practice for us when we are preparing to announce something significant."

Senate Education Chairman John Reagan, R-Deerfield, said he was satisfied.

"If the loyal librarian wanted the bequest to be used specifically he needed to place instructions through his representative (attorney). If the gift was misapplied it is unconscionable. If the administration was free to use the money as they pleased they were within their rights and at least the taxpayers were not on the hook for the scoreboard," Reagan said.

"The administration should be congratulated for finding a donation source outside of the state's contribution to the system for a wish list item for the school."

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Rep. Mike Moffett, R-Loudon, a UNH alumnus and former university system employee, said the controversy only makes it harder to make UNH's case on other matters.

"Lack of transparency, such as what seems to be the case with how UNH handled the Morin donation, troubles many legislators, and helps account for why the university system has been level-funded while the community college system's budget has been increased," Moffett said. "This is a reason why I co-sponsored Rep. Dean-Bailey's bill seeking to have USNH be more forthcoming about spending."

Former House Finance Chairman Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, is one of UNH's most capable defenders and describes UNH as her "most significant constituent."

Unlike other state universities across the country, Smith said, UNH is often the target of unfair media criticism and many in the Legislature ignore its good works and fail to give it the support it should.

In this case, however, UNH administrators damaged their own credibility, said Smith, an advocate for more transparency in government business.

"They feel they have to circle the horses in order to protect themselves," Smith said.

"They are not as candid and open and as transparent as a public university should be. There are any number of examples. The one at issue here is particularly egregious but it is not the only example."

House Education Chairman Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, said too much focus on this incident loses sight on what needs to improve in higher education, more affordability and schooling students for the emerging jobs of tomorrow.

"With all this said, we should put the scoreboard issue in our rear view mirror and use our resources to effectively challenge our workforce needs and employability," Ladd said.

Sunday News correspondent Kimberley Haas contributed to this story.

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