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Our view: $20 million? That's a lot of money

Herald editorial board

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perspective sometimes varies.

But $20 million is still a whole lot of money.

Yet we worry that some in Grand Forks are losing perspective of the philanthropic efforts made by the family of Ralph Engelstad in the years since he donated $110 million to create the hockey and basketball arenas that today are among the best in the nation.

For example, in a Herald report published in Thursday's edition, a UND professor and former State Board of Higher Education faculty representative said the Engelstad family "frankly hasn't given a lot to the university since the arena."

Such talk makes us wince considering the incredible generosity shown to UND and the community by the Engelstad Foundation over the past 20 years.

Eric Murphy made that comment in a story prior to the renewal of UND President Mark Kennedy's contract. Murphy, with his background both at UND and with the SBHE, has insight on the subject, and we appreciate his forthright comments. Murphy speculated Kennedy could have been in trouble with the board for Kennedy's reportedly rocky relationship with the Engelstads.

It all proved moot, as the SBHE on Thursday renewed Kennedy's contract through 2020. But downplaying the Engelstads' donations in recent years is unfair.

Two decades ago, Mr. Engelstad donated $110 million for the sports arena. Upon his death in 2002, his assets were used to create the Engelstad Foundation, which reportedly has about $800 million in assets. The foundation is governed by a board, upon which Kris Engelstad McGarry serves.

It was McGarry who came to the Herald in the spring and discussed what she said is a frayed relationship with UND under Kennedy's watch. Murphy referred to that with his comment to the Herald and we understand the point he was making.

To say the Engelstads "haven't given a lot" in recent years stands out. Their $20 million endowment was made in 2007, and paid over the course of a decade. Compared to the $110 million donated to create Ralph Engelstad Arena, it is a smaller amount. But it's substantial nonetheless, and those past gifts never should be diminished — no matter how the family's relationship with UND progresses or regresses in the future.

Meanwhile, UND must be ever cognizant of the quality of its relationship with the Engelstads and all donors. When McGarry visited with the Herald, she said future donations could be in jeopardy if a more genial relationship fails to develop. She also said the tension stretches over a few past presidents, and not just the current one.

It seems efforts are being made to fix whatever's wrong.

But for a moment, put aside the controversy about relationships and focus only on the dollars that have flowed into Grand Forks from the Engelstads. Also consider what those donations have meant to the community as they compound and multiply in economic impact.

Then, the incredible generosity of the family tends to come sharply into focus.