UNC Law gets big gift but won’t say how big

The University of North Carolina School of Law recently announced it had received the largest single cash gift in school history. And how much was that? One has to be a mind reader to know, apparently. The school would not disclose the amount given by North Carolina businessman Jerry Wordsworth.

Pockets apparently run deep with this North Carolina native, though. He and his brother used to be the largest minority owners of the Carolina Panthers, after all.

“Jerry’s generosity will allow Carolina Law to recruit the strongest teachers and students in the country, said Dean Martin Brinkley, in a statement. “We will use his gift to educate excellent lawyers who will work in private practice, public service, nonprofit work and public interest practice.”

Even though the Chapel Hill school is a public entity, it does not have to disclose the amount. That’s because, technically, the school did not get the money. It was given to the UNC Foundation, which is a nonprofit and not subject to personal record requests, according to Amy Barefoot Graedon, assistant dean for communications.

It was the donor who asked that the amount not be publicized, she said. She did not say why. Wordsworth and his siblings ran a national foodservice distributorship called Meadowbrook Meat Company, which was purchased by a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary in 2012. It was doing $6 billion in revenue annually at the time.

Wordsworth also recently gave a gift to his alma mater, The North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. The school described the gift as “substantial.” To know more would take more mind reading. The school would not release the amount, either. 

So what was the next biggest gift ever received by the law school? That might give us a bit of a clue since this one eclipsed it. But alas, that donation was confidential too. 

While such gifts are widely celebrated by schools, they can cause controversy. The University of Alabama School of Law, for instance, was jubilant when it received a $26.5 million pledge from developer Hugh Culverhouse Jr. last year. It even renamed the school in his honor.

But the record gift was returned recently after a spat developed between Culverhouse and the school. He claimed it was over his protest targeting the state’s recently passed abortion law, the strictest in the nation. The school said it was a flap over how the money was to be spent.

George Mason University School of Law received $30 million in donations to change the name of its school to honor Antonin Scalia, the former U.S. Supreme Court justice. In that case, $20 million came from an anonymous donor, and $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation, which is known for supporting conservative causes.

Some students didn’t think the process was transparent enough and sought more information, particularly if the donations came with any strings attached. But, as in the case with UNC Law, the money had been given to the George Mason University Foundation, a nonprofit entity. Many schools have such fundraising entities.

In the George Mason case, the students — calling themselves Transparent GMU — sued, saying the foundation was simply an extension of the public university and should be subject to public records requests. These foundations have a number of critics, who argue that they shield the schools from accountability.

The students lost.

The University of North Carolina once came under fire by the student newspaper, which wanted information from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Foundation. But the school refused, saying the foundation was a nonprofit.

The university has landed some big gifts in the past. The UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy got a $100 million donation from alumnus Phil Eshelman in 2014. That's the largest gift ever given to a school of pharmacy in the U.S.  

In the case of the UNC Law Foundation, the relationship between it and the school seems close. Brinkley, the dean, is listed as the principal officer of the fund, according to its most recent federal tax return.

It has $62,247,336 in assets. Well, not including the most recent donation, however much that is.


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