STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to follow up now on mystery donations to colleges. More than a dozen have now received anonymous payments totaling millions of dollars. Not even the schools that received the money know who's giving it, and they've been told not to try finding out. No such instruction applies to NPR's Claudio Sanchez, who's been looking for clues.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Ah, there's nothing like a good mystery, especially if it involves lots of money - $81.5 million to be exact - and a mysterious donor. The recipients: 15 very, very lucky colleges in 10 states. All but one of the schools are public institutions. And, oh, yeah, the president at every single school is a woman.

Dr. LOIS DEFLEUR (President, Binghamton University): I am Lois DeFleur, and I'm president of Binghamton University.

SANCHEZ: When we called Dr. DeFleur, she was doing what most university presidents must do these days: fundraising and meeting with donors and alumni, no doubt retelling the story of the phone call she received in early April about a surprise gift.

Dr. DEFLEUR: And there were two conditions: 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.

SANCHEZ: 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…

Dr. DEFLEUR: The six million cashier's check arrived with a brief letter indicating that four million was to be used for financial aid and scholarships for women and minorities.

SANCHEZ: Hmm, 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. In every case, the money was to go female and minority students. Each time, the donor demanded anonymity. The gifts thus far range from a million dollars 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.

Dr. LOU ANNA SIMON (President, Michigan State University): 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.

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

Ms. MELISSA BERMAN (President, 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. Of course, I think it's a woman because these are all women-led institutions.

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

Ms. BERMAN: Any institution would want to be sure they're not accepting money that was earned criminally.

SANCHEZ: Do you think we'll ever know who this person is?

Ms. BERMAN: I think we will eventually know who this person is. Curiosity is very powerful, but it might take a couple of years.

SANCHEZ: I, for one, would still like to know who and why. Will she or he keep giving? Will schools run by men get any money, and who's next? Anyway, I've run out of clues.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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