College Mystery: Who Is The Secret Donor?

When times are tough, most people are tight with their money. But in the past couple of months, somebody has been giving millions of dollars to more than a dozen colleges — anonymously. Not even the schools that received the money know who it is, and they've been told in no uncertain terms not to try to find out.

There is nothing like a good mystery, especially if it involves a lot of money — $81.5 million — and a mysterious donor. The recipients? Fourteen very lucky colleges in nine states. All but one of the schools are public institutions, and the president at every single school is a woman.

Lois DeFleur, president of Binghamton University in New York, is doing what most university presidents must do these days — fundraising and meeting with donors and alumni, and no doubt retelling the story of the phone call she received in early April about a surprise gift

"There were two conditions," DeFleur recalled. "One that it was anonymous — we would never know who the donor or donors were and that we were not to try to find out."

Of course, that really piqued DeFleur's curiosity, but given the donor's stern instructions, she was not about to dig deeper.

Ten days later, "the $6 million cashier's check arrived with a brief letter indicating that $4 million was to be used for financial aid in scholarships for women and minorities," DeFleur said.

Another clue: All 15 colleges that received money received almost identical instructions. Each time, the money was mailed by an intermediary — always a cashier's check or money order. And in every case, the money was to go to female and minority students. Each time, the donor demanded anonymity.

The gifts thus far range from $1 million to $10 million, which is what Michigan State University received. And yes, president Lou Anna Simon would love to know who the donor is — just to thank him or her.

"We've been assured that we're going to be able to assure the donor that we have used these funds wisely and in a way that he or she would be proud," Simon says.

But is there a profile from which one can draw to figure out who the donor might be? Yes, says Melissa Berman, president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

"The fact that this is so completely anonymous suggests someone who lived in a period of time in which for a woman to be so public about her wealth was not the standard way of operating," Berman says. "Of course I think it's a woman because these are all women-led institutions."

Still, in this day and age, Berman says, schools would be wise to find out who the donor is by doing a little more digging on their own

"Any institution would want to be sure they're not accepting money that was earned criminally," Berman says. "I think we will eventually know who this person is — curiosity is very powerful, but it might take a couple of years."

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