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The Montana University System is considering new rules for naming buildings and colleges after wealthy donors, which would require 14 days notice, a public hearing and an end to naming things after candidates running for political office.

The Board of Regents is expected to debate the proposed policy changes at its two-day meeting next week in Helena.

The proposed changes respond to two recent controversies. In 2015 the public got just two days notice that the University of Montana was renaming its law school for Great Falls attorney Alexander Blewett III for his $10 million donation.

Last year Montana State University named its computer science school and a new auditorium after Bozeman entrepreneur Greg Gianforte and his wife, Susan, who gave an $8 million gift. It was controversial because Gianforte was then running for the Montana governor’s office and he opposed the Bozeman City Commission’s non-discrimination ordinance for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people.

Changing the regents’ naming policies should ensure there are “no surprises or misunderstandings” for the donors, campus presidents, fundraising foundations or the public, Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner for higher education and University System spokesman, said Tuesday.

When the element of surprise is removed, McRae said, the days when the regents approve naming buildings, colleges, schools or other property will be “days we can celebrate,” without a public uproar marring the gift.

State Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, sponsored a bill in the 2017 Legislature that would have required the Board of Regents to prohibit publicizing gifts by candidates for public office until the day after an election. Senate Bill 211 was killed last month, tabled in committee, largely because of concerns it would violate the Montana Constitution, which gives the regents “full power” over the University System.

Sands told the Senate Education Committee that she believed the 14-day public comment period proposed by the regents wasn’t “anywhere near” long enough. She preferred that the regents announce a naming proposal at one meeting and vote at their next meeting — typically two months later.

Four MSU students testified for her bill. Robert Moore said it was important that the educational community “be free from political exploitation.” Molly Baird, a math student and member of the LBGTQ community, said MSU’s renaming of computer science made her feel “unsafe and unwanted.”

Committee chairman Sen. Daniel Salomon, R-Ronan, agreed that “14 days is probably way too short.”

McRae said the people who worked on the policy — including regents Fran Albrecht of Missoula and Martha Sheehy of Billings — felt that 14 days notice was a “substantial improvement.” Current policy requires only the regular 48 hours notice for placing actions on the regents’ agenda.

McRae said the regents don’t want to wait two months to approve naming because it could hurt the cultivation of gifts by major donors, who have lots of good places to give their money. It’s a competitive environment, he said, and if public debate were stretched out over months about whether donors were good enough to have their name on a university building, he said, “it would have a chilling effect.”

The changes would also require holding a public meeting on the affected campus. When the Blewett law school issue came up, critics in Missoula were upset that the regents were deciding at a meeting hundreds of miles away in Kalispell.

The proposed policy change keeps the old rule that university buildings and properties can’t be named for current state or university employees. It would add “statewide” elected or appointed officials and candidates who have filed for statewide office. McRae said “statewide” is intended to include federal officeholders, such as the late Sen. Conrad Burns, for whom MSU named the Burns Telecommunications Center while he was still in office.

Under the policy, candidates would have to wait at least five years after leaving public office to be considered. Exceptions would be allowed if someone died, if another unrelated person requested the naming, or there were urgent circumstances.

The proposal also makes it clear that naming may not be forever. Naming “in perpetuity” would only be considered for gifts of “extraordinary value” — and would last only as long as the building or program continues. Names could be changed when a time period expires.

McRae said the Gianforte School of Computing will keep its donors’ name, even if it someday became a College of Computing.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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