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At his inauguration last month, new University of Utah president David Pershing highlighted gifts from the Huntsman and Noorda families, who have long-standing ties to the state. Other donor names familiar to Utahns Eccles, Marriott, Sorenson, Skaggs and others are emblazoned on buildings and programs throughout campus.
But it's Canadian mining-magnate-turned-philanthropist Pierre Lassonde, far less known and with a more distant connection to Utah, who is now emerging as one of the U.'s most generous donors.
Pershing devoted the most literal "face time" to images of Lassonde during his inaugural address, hailing his "unbelievable commitment" to turning students into entrepreneurs. His latest gift will fund the proposed Lassonde Institute, which would provide housing for up to 400 students interested in adding entrepreneurship to their majors, whether or not they are focused on business.
After earning a master's in business administration at the U. 30 years ago, Lassonde became an astute gold analyst and investor. He pioneered the practice of acquiring royalties for precious metals in the early 1980s. He struck pay dirt on an undervalued Nevada mine that eventually produced more than 30 million ounces.
After his firm Franco-Nevada was acquired by the massive Newmont Mining Corp. in 2002, Lassonde became president of the world's largest gold producer, with operations in North and South America, Ghana, central Asia, Australia and Indonesia.
But his seat at the top did not come without some controversy.
The company has been embroiled in pollution scandals at many of its sites. And at the time the U. was negotiating with Lassonde for an earlier gift, which funded entrepreneur programs bearing his name, some Newmont stockholders were accusing him and other executives of illegally profiting at their expense.
Stockholders sue • Around the time Lassonde became Newmont's president, Batu Hijau in Indonesia was a new open-pit gold and copper mine on the island of Sumbawa, east of the capital Jakarta. Executives described it as "one of our real cash registers" in 2004 conference calls with analysts, according to court documents.
Indonesia's gold deposits are often locked in steep landscapes that receive 100 inches of annual rainfall, and extracting gold can be costly and hard on the environment.
At the Batu Hijau mine, operators dug out ore that contained just a few grams of gold per ton and ground it up. The resulting slurry was put in concentration tanks. Air bubbles and chemicals helped gold- and copper-rich material rise to the surface, where it was collected and piped to a shipping terminal. The tailings were dumped nearly 2 miles off shore in 300 feet of water.
At the start of the rainy 2003 rainy season, Batu's walls became unstable. Collapsing walls eventually clogged the mine floor with debris and cut off access to valuable ore. Production slowed and costs escalated.
Before divulging these problems to investors 18 months into the crisis, Lassonde and other executives sold $30 million of their holdings in the company and secured bonuses based on false production projections, according to court filings accusing the executives of securities fraud.
In April 2005, executives disclosed that production fell far below targets. Confronted by analysts in a conference call, CEO Wayne Murdy conceded the company should have been more forthcoming about the mine's problems.
Over the next two days of trading, Newmont stock shed about 10 percent of its value. Within weeks, stockholders filed six lawsuits, which were consolidated under one case led by two pension funds.
Stockholders objected that during a 12-day period in November 2004, Lassonde and five other executives had unloaded $30 million in Newmont stock when shares were trading at a peak of almost $50, according to the suit. Lassonde sold 420,000 shares worth $20 million.
The consolidated lawsuit was resolved in 2007 with a $15 million pay-out to investors and their lawyers, and no admission of wrongdoing on the part of Newmont executives. Lassonde did not respond to interview requests made through the university. U. officials declined to comment on the dispute.
Expanding entrepreneurship • Lassonde's first major gift to the U. came in 2002, with $3 million that established the Lassonde New Venture Development Center. He pledged another $13 million four years later to create the Pierre Lassonde Entrepreneur Center, now housed in historic Fort Douglas.
The center has been praised for engaging students in technology commercialization and helping spur a boom in start-up companies based on the U.'s scientific research.
In a video shown during Pershing's inaugural, Lassonde said, "We have been freer to experiment than we would have been at other universities. We have been able to create something that is difficult to reproduce in other university settings. Of all the philanthropic endeavors I have done, this is the one that is nearest and dearest to my heart."
His gifts have established an engineering program at Canada's York University and a mining program at the University of Toronto, and helped endow the Quebec National Art Museum. In 2003, he was inducted into the Order of Canada, one of his homeland's highest civilian honors.
In 2006, the U. awarded Lassonde, who serves on the school's National Advisory Board, an honorary doctorate. Business dean Taylor Randall wrote in an e-mail, "Pierre has demonstrated a tireless commitment to the university and its students. We value and we are extremely grateful for his commitment."
The latest pledge from the 65-year-old Lassonde, who retired from Newmont in 2006, would elevate the Lassonde center to an institute. It would expand and house the U.'s entrepreneur programs, such as the Foundry business incubator, under one roof, and add a program in social entrepreneurship.
"He is committed to helping us design and construct a building that would be iconic and help ensure our reputation in this field will continue to grow," Pershing told his inaugural audience, as an image of the Frank Gehry-designed titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, was projected behind him.
Officials will not say how much Lassonde pledged, but the proposal unveiled at the inaugural could cost well over $40 million. An architect and a site have yet to be selected. Because it has a large housing component, the U. could finance part of the project through revenue bonds, as it did with the new 309-bed Honors College residence.
Proposed Lassonde Institute
Officials are weighing possible sites on the southeast quadrant of the U.'s campus, where planners envision residence halls and the Student Life Center. Read more about the proposed institute › A4