EMU scrambled to approve $20,000 donation from Regent and his wife, who heads LARA | Michigan Radio
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EMU scrambled to approve $20,000 donation from Regent and his wife, who heads LARA

Jan 2, 2020

Late last summer, Eastern Michigan University's Athletic Director Scott Wetherbee gave a tour of the new Student-Athlete Performance Center. It’s the first major construction project for EMU’s 400-plus student athletes in 20 years.

“I loved the conversation about naming the entry into the football suite after you,” Wetherbee wrote in a follow up email to EMU Regent Michael Hawks August 1st.

The athletic department still hasn’t raised the $12 million it pledged to raise to pay for the new center. So Wetherbee has been doing some financial courting.

With the grand opening ceremony less than a month away, “timing is critical” Wetherbee wrote Hawks.

“If you could have this signed and sent back to me by Wednesday of next week (Aug. 7) that would give me just enough time” to work with the graphics company and get the plaque installed, Wetherbee wrote.

“Thank you. Will review.” Hawks replied that evening.

EMU policy prohibits naming buildings after administrators, school faculty, elected officials, board of regents and "state employees concerned with the functions, oversight or control of the University."

There’s an exception in cases involving cash or an irrevocable planned gift. A Naming Committee must sign off on those types of requests.

Hawks’ donation was hastily arranged in a matter of weeks. The Naming Committee hadn’t formally approved Hawks' pledge until after the grand opening of the new building. Emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show one member of the committee was inadvertently left off the email chain of Naming Committee members approving the application until after the celebration on August 27th.

Regent Hawks is a longtime lobbyist in Michigan. He’s a part owner of Governmental Consultant Services, Inc., one of the largest lobbying firms in Lansing. Former Governor Rick Snyder appointed him to EMU’s Board of Regents in 2011. Hawks cast a vote to approve the Capital Project Expenditure for the Student-Athlete Performance Center in December of 2017.

Because Michael Hawks is a sitting regent, Michigan Radio sought records to show that his gift followed board policy. In its response, EMU redacted the amount of all gifts the school received for the new athlete center. Even gift amounts it had previously disclosed.

Michigan Radio appealed, imploring EMU President James Smith to demonstrate that the school followed its own policy.

In a written response, President Smith agreed with the station’s assessment that “there is a public interest in confirming that a fair market value exists” for such a “significant naming opportunity” in the front hallway.

“To that end, I hereby affirm, with permission from Regent Hawks, that Regent Hawks and Orlene Hawks made a personal donation greater than $20,000 in connection with the naming of that hallway,” Smith wrote. He did not specify the exact amount pledged.

Hawks and his wife, Orlene Hawks, pledged the gift jointly.  

Orlene Hawks heads one of the largest departments for the State of Michigan, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. Her appointment in January 2019 sparked some controversy over potential conflicts of interest. She has pledged to avoid such conflicts.  

EMU’s Smith also writes that its Donor Bill of Rights allows donors to “be assured that information about their gift is handled with respect and with confidentiality to the extent provided by law.” That’s why the university redacted Hawks’ and all of the other naming gifts for the Student-Athlete Performance Center.

Thomas J. Lang’s $500,000 gift for the Weight Room “TJ’s Garage” was made public in the President's Report to the Board of Regents on April 21st, 2017. That same report said former EMU Board of Regents Chair Phil Incarnati also pledged a $500,000 gift, presumably for the football locker room named after him. Eastern’s Athletic Fund issued a press release in 2017 announcing Jason Jones’ $150,000 commitment for the Defensive Line Meeting Room and Coaches Offices.  

Smith says that Hawks’ $20,000+ cash gift will be made in installments over 5 years. EMU has received its first installment, Smith wrote. Hawks’ term on the Board of Regents expires in 2026.