Enron's Lay still namesake of Mizzou professorship

Monday, February 11, 2002

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Wanted: a noted scholar to earn six figures serving in an endowed chair in international economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

One catch: the professorship is named for embattled ex-Enron Chairman Kenneth L. Lay, a Missouri alum who established it three years ago with a $1.1 million donation of Enron stock (which the school cashed in for up to $82 a share).

"I don't think the name will be a negative. It's not like it's the Osama bin Laden chair," said Michael Podgursky, chairman of the Economics Department at the university.

Lay, a Missouri native who graduated from Hickman High School in Columbia, received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the university's flagship campus in Columbia.

Before Enron's collapse last year, Lay was viewed as another well-heeled alum sharing his wealth and embodying a success story worthy of Horatio Alger.

But now there are jokes about the never-filled university job bearing Lay's name. The Chronicle of Higher Education mentioned quips that document-shredding could be a qualification and that applicants might inquire about the pension plan.

"Of course, right now, Ken Lay is innocent until proven guilty and he hasn't been charged with anything in the Enron mess," said state Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, whose district includes the campus. "But the fact it's the largest bankruptcy in the nation's history certainly will taint this chair even if the person is eventually exonerated."

Search for candidates

Although the gift was from Lay's private wealth, Missouri taxpayers could help pay to search for candidates.

That's because the state provides $4 million annually for the four-campus University of Missouri system to enhance endowed chairs. The state matches only the earnings on private gifts, and the state portion may only be spent for costs associated with the search, such as travel and hotels, said university system spokesman Joe Moore.

Moore couldn't immediately say on Friday how much the state has spent to enhance the Lay chair. Podgursky said there have been "40 or 50 applicants," with no hire pending.

Del Martin, senior vice president of an Atlanta-based consulting company specializing in higher education endowments, said the history of philanthropy "shows that while we look back on many of these names with great reverence, from Stanford to Rockefeller, these men were considered robber barons in their day."

Martin recalled a long-ago controversy in which a strip club donated money to a fund-raising campaign, and her late partner replied to critics by declaring: "The only thing wrong with tainted money is there t'aint enough."

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