You’ve probably never heard of Robert Morin, unless you live in New Hampshire. And maybe not even then. But Mr. Morin quite innocently sowed the seeds of a particularly egregious moment in PR history.
Morin was born in Nashua, NH in 1938 to French-Canadian parents who toiled in the city’s cotton mills and never owned a car or their own home. The eldest of three brothers and the only one to attend college, Morin attended UNH from 1955 to 1963, majoring in English and interrupting his studies repeatedly to earn more money for school by working in the Nashua mills. Eventually, he found a part-time job at UNH’s Dimond Library that he enjoyed so much he went on to earn a master’s degree in library science at Simmons College. In 1965 Morin returned to the library for a full-time job as a cataloguer and retired as Faculty Librarian after 49 years in 2014.
Morin was a short balding man, a curious figure who always smoked a pipe, wore a ragged sweater vest and blazer and could often be seen pacing at the entrance to the library. Some wondered if he was a homeless person. He would embark on epic immersion projects. While working at UNH, Morin read every book published in the United States – every one! – from 1930 to 1938 (except for children’s books, books on technology and cookbooks – the latter, given his daily diet of corn chips and Coke for breakfast and TV dinners at night, being completely understandable). He also watched – and catalogued — every one of the library’s 22,000 videos, averaging three per day.
No one suspected that this hunched, bespectacled man was quietly amassing a $4 million estate that he would leave to UNH after his death in March 2015 at age 77.
The University of New Hampshire ranks lowest in the country for the amount of subsidy it receives from the state and has the sixth most expensive in-state tuition for a four-year public college. In 2012, the school was threatened with a 45% cut in state funding over two years. The cuts ultimately were not enacted but nevertheless, UNH and many other smaller state university systems exist on a shoestring compared to their private brethren and even some of the larger land grant schools like Penn State.
Despite that, UNH made the decision that a prudent use of its limited resources was a $25 million renovation of its football stadium. It was not a universally popular decision, particularly among UNH alumnae who graduated with massive tuition debt.
When Morin wrote his will, he had his attorney put in a stipulation that $100,000 be directed to the library but that he trusted the university to “do the right thing” with the other $3,900,000. Perhaps he would have been surprised to learn that the university chose to spend $1 million of Morin’s bequest on a video scoreboard for the new (and already over-budget) football stadium. Use of the bequest for the scoreboard drew broad criticism, with one alumna stating, “the school’s administrative decision to spend a quarter of Morin’s generous donation on an inconsequential trinket for the athletic department is a complete disgrace to the spirit and memory of Robert Morin.”
News reports on the scandal highlighted Morin’s frugality. He drove a 1992 Plymouth and when it died replaced it with a used car that already had 100,000 miles on it.
A Deadspin article on the kerfuffle quoted a UNH grad saying, “I am not inherently opposed to some of the money going to the football program. I am opposed to it going to a scoreboard that…will be out of date in [a few] years. Use the money to endow a scholarship for a player who wants to go to grad school, maybe. Pay it forward, make it meaningful.”
And this is when a UNH PR person responded in a statement to a national onslaught of negative online and MSM reaction with this pearl: “In the last 15 months of his life Morin lived in an assisted living center where he started watching football games on television, mastering the rules and names of the players and teams.”
It seems, according to the spokesperson, that after Mr. Morin moved into the assisted-living facility, the voracious reader and thrice-daily consumer of videos discovered televised football and became obsessed with it.
The implication, of course, was that with his new-found passion for football, Robert Morin would have whole-heartedly endorsed – no, demanded – that 25% of his lifetime savings be spent on a giant video scoreboard. But the retrospective rationalization rings hollow. As Deadspin’s Craig Fehrman put it, “The librarian’s fandom had absolutely nothing to do with the scoreboard, but through careful and shameless juxtaposition, UNH implied that it had.”
Morin gave the University a multi-million-dollar unrestricted bequest. Were they within their rights to use it as they saw fit? Yes. Did they manage the communications around their choice deftly, especially in light of the school’s well-known financial woes? Absolutely not. For sheer PR bone-headedness, we give UNH a grade of “F.”
(In the interest of full disclosure, my wife, the inestimable Lauren Letellier, is a UNH grad. It was her outrage that originally impelled me to write this post. However, I should also note that we are the Historians of Hillsdale, NY, and just the other day we published a blog post about another mysterious philanthropist who worked as a retail clerk his whole life and yet managed to accumulate and distribute a substantial fortune — the story has a far better outcome than this one. See it at https://wp.me/p8Girw-dC )
Categories: Random PR Thoughts