Barry Saunders

Duke, don’t try to get a pledge from a dead man – Saunders

Former Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon and a part-owner of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder attends Game 6 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals, in Oklahoma City, on June 6, 2012. Oklahoma City police say McClendon, a natural gas industry titan who was indicted on March 1, 2016, was killed in a fiery single-car crash in Oklahoma City.
Former Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon and a part-owner of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder attends Game 6 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals, in Oklahoma City, on June 6, 2012. Oklahoma City police say McClendon, a natural gas industry titan who was indicted on March 1, 2016, was killed in a fiery single-car crash in Oklahoma City. AP

Not only can you not take it with you, but if you’ve made a pledge to Duke University, you can’t even leave it behind without someone from the school trying to get it.

There are lots of things to like about Duke, despite its men’s basketball team. It’s an indisputably world-class educational institution, and it’s a good corporate citizen in Durham. The university has a lot to brag about.

Recent revelations that it sued the estate of a dead alumnus to get money he’d pledged is not, however, something that redounds to the school’s glory, nor is it something that Duke officials will be posting on their refrigerator doors or in its alumni magazine.

When fracking king Aubrey Kerr McClendon died in a car wreck in March, he’d contributed almost half of the $18 million he’d pledged to his beloved university. Rather than sending the family a card of condolence and thanking it for its paterfamilias’ generosity to that point, Duke decided to try to haul the family into court and demand to know “Where’s the rest of it at?”

Duke eventually dropped the suit against McClendon’s estate, but not before the university’s reputation was besmirched.

In a News & Observer story last week, Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld said, “While submitting such claims is generally a routine procedure, in this case our action was misperceived as adversarial to the McClendon family, which was never the intention.. .. We are deeply sorry for any pain this has caused the McClendon family.”

I asked Maria Di Mento, a writer for the Washington, D.C.-based Chronicle of Philanthropy, if it was indeed “routine” to pursue a pledge into the grave.

“I’m not sure I buy that,” Di Mento said, sounding as skeptical as I. “If it is” routine, she said, “it’s not publicized, because it’s probably a bad practice in the minds of other big donors. It seems an unwise move because other donors are watching. They may wonder, ‘What if I fall on hard times’ and can’t fulfill their pledge in the original time period?

“I think it sends a bad signal to other wealthy donors,” said Di Mento, who covers high-net-worth giving for the magazine.

Right on. Something like this could indeed have an impact on other potential donors who may fear that if they don’t fulfill the terms of a pledge, someone from the university will be diving into the casket to rummage through their pockets as the choir sings “Nearer My God To Thee.”

Something like this could have an impact on other potential donors who may fear that if they don’t fulfill the terms of a pledge, someone from the university will be diving into the casket to rifle through their pockets as the choir sings ‘Nearer My God To Thee.’

Don’t be surprised, then, if the wills of Duke benefactors contain instructions for the undertaker to sew their pockets shut before interment.

Schoenfeld, in his statement, praised McClendon as “one of our most passionate ... graduates.”

Duke is no slouch in the “passion” department when it comes to pursuing dollars, and this instance of apparent avarice isn’t an aberration. Several years ago, I wrote a story about a member of the Saudi royal family who was a patient at Duke Hospital. The university shut down an entire wing of the hospital, which was then furnished with expensive rugs and furniture and armed guards throughout, so that Royal Queen Iffat al bint Ahmed wouldn’t have to be bothered by common folk.

As I wrote at the time, I’m the most common folk I know and the only royalty I’d ever seen in person was Queen Latifah at Gangsta Rap Fest ’92 in Chicago. Anxious to remedy that cultural deprivation, I eased onto Her Royal Highness’ floor but was immediately intercepted by a curvaceous security guard in a red dress. The sensuousness of her curves was exceeded only by the curve of the .357 Magnum poking from beneath her jacket.

Quicker than one could sing the opening stanza of “Nearer My Pledge To Thee,” I was brusquely escorted from the hospital property by a gaggle of guards and her.

That incident occurred only three years after Duke had been Okey-doked by a no-account count who went by Baron Maurice de Rothschild, a presumed French baron. His government name was Mauro Cortez Jr. from El Paso, Texas. Cortez pretended to be to the manor born, but was arrested for defrauding the university when it turned out he hadn’t a farthing and couldn’t even parlez vous Francais.

Mamma mia. (Chill, homes. I can’t either.)

Those two incidents merely illustrate that the university – and likely any institution that relies on philanthropy – can have its head turned and lose its sense of perspective if there’s presumed to be a fat endowment involved.

Remember the old Henny Youngman routine where the doctor gave a patient six months to live. He couldn’t pay his bill – so the doctor gave him another six months.

Will Duke, with a 2015 endowment of $7.3 billion, implement a policy forbidding donors to die before they’ve fulfilled their pledges?

  Comments