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Loryn Brazier's portrait of the founding trustees of the VCU School of Engineering Foundation 

The $50 million painting

It may not be as momentous as Trumbull's famous depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but there is a story behind this painting, a very interesting and revealing one; therefore, it is a story that almost no one concerned wants to talk about, at least not publicly.

It is the story of how major donations to colleges and universities have gone from being acts of generosity (if also vanity) to marketing and recruitment tools for corporations; how such interested parties also buy control of whether and how they are identified when they make their so-called gifts, even to nominally public schools; and how many of them go on, with telling frequency, to win business contracts at the ones in which they so invest.

Finding out which givers fall into the more sinister categories is the type of thing enjoyed by nosy people, such as those represented by the Virginia Press Association, which is backing a requirement to publicly identify major donors. But a year after the dedication of the VCU school of engineering building and the unveiling of a giant group portrait honoring those who paid and helped pay for the school, one of the painting's more prominent subjects told a state legislative panel that such a requirement would scare many donors off.

William W. Berry, the retired chairman of Virginia Power parent company Dominion Resources Inc., reportedly told lawmakers Nov. 12 that "there wouldn't be a school of engineering at VCU without the private donations" and requiring even limited disclosure of Virginia's most generous college and university donors would strangle their generosity.

Berry was among the original trustees of the engineering school foundation, which owns and has raised all of the funds for the more than $50 million facility. He says the issue is a matter of donors' "control" over how their identities are handled.

"Sure, some people like to have a plaque with their name on it — or on a building," but others prefer anonymity, he says. "A lot of donors ... want control over how that donation is released." Berry adds that, if anything, the portrait shows the VCU engineering building's chief backers have nothing to hide, and that the building itself cannot be construed as tainted because, unlike the Siegel Center, for example, "there's nobody's name on [it], though some people would be entitled" because of the large amounts they gave.

Founding trustees William H. Goodwin Jr. and Bruce C. Gottwald, for example, each gave $1 million or more for the project. They and five other such donors are named on a large plaque inside the engineering building's main entrance. Goodwin and Gottwald also are among the 33 subjects of the eight-by-twelve-foot group portrait hanging in the lower lobby of the building.

"I think it's very nice," says freshman mechanical engineering student Katherine Rogers. "I like how it draws the focal point to the middle, to the plans on the table; not the people but the building
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