When the billionaire T. Denny Sanford meted out cash, his philanthropy often begot physical tributes. Hospitals plastered his name on emergency rooms and nursing homes; bronze statues were erected in his likeness. In the case of National University in San Diego, the school’s chancellor reportedly displayed a cardboard cutout of Sanford following a $350 million pledge in 2019. The university agreed to name itself after him, too.
Now, following reports that Sanford has been investigated for possible possession of child pornography, some National students are calling for distance.
“They should just give the money back,” said Perry Craz, who is pursuing a master’s degree in special education and teaching. “I don't see any benefit by having Sanford’s name put on the top of the ticket.”
A year ago, the school announced that it would hold off on the renaming for “the foreseeable future,” though administrators have publicly declined to be more specific or to address whether they will still accept the pledge.
National’s college of education is already named for Sanford. To date he has gifted or pledged roughly $500 million to the university.
“If that guy is allegedly [involved] with child porn, he needs to go...The school should completely separate itself from that,” another student told The Daily Beast, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to tarnish his relationship with National prior to graduating. “That scares the hell out of me, because who's going to take my degree seriously?”
The alleged investigation was first surfaced by ProPublica, which reported last August that authorities in Sanford’s home state of South Dakota had obtained a search warrant involving his electronic devices. The billionaire has not been charged with a crime. Last month the South Dakota Supreme Court heard arguments about whether to unseal some of the investigative files.
“Although we know very little about any state or federal inquiry relating to Mr. Sanford, we do know those authorities responsible for investigating allegations obviously did not find information or evidence that supported or resulted in any criminal charges,” his attorney, Marty Jackley, previously said.
Jackley did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to the Associated Press, it is possible that Sanford could still face charges. The outlet reported that South Dakota’s attorney general believed he had enough evidence to charge Sanford, though he referred the case to federal authorities since the alleged activity took place across multiple states. South Dakota could still take action down the road.
The press accounts have not discouraged some organizations from taking Sanford’s money. Last week he pledged an additional $350 million to the South Dakota health system Sanford Health to establish “virtual care centers” in the Midwest.
“We took the media reports in the fall of 2020 seriously and are satisfied that those allegations were not substantiated,” the system’s CEO, Bill Gassen, told The Daily Beast in response to questions about the gift.
At National, which was founded in 1971 and has more than 25,000 enrolled students, there is still some uneasiness about Sanford’s ties.
“It's one of those situations where one hand is washing the other”—money for the university, a reputation boon for Sanford—a current student said. “I'm not really seeing how much it benefits the people that are paying $2,000 a month on classes.”
“I hope the university is doing their due diligence,” added Brandon Byer, another master’s candidate who said his “experience with NU has been awesome.”
Other students are frustrated with the school’s academic rigor, particularly during the pandemic. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, as of 2019 “National issued more teacher credentials than any other school in California.”
“The standards which they grade us on are pretty low, I think,” a current student said. “If you just do a fraction of what they're asking you to do, they're kind of just pushing people out the door with A's and B's. It's really just a way for you to get credentialed quickly.”
A spokesperson for National did not respond to requests for comment. The school’s chancellor, Michael Cunningham, also did not respond to a phone call or text message.
Sanford, who made much of his $3.4 billion fortune selling high-interest—and highly controversial—credit cards, has earned a reputation as one of the world’s great philanthropists, following a 2007 announcement that he wanted to “die broke.” (He has since grown richer.)
That reputation remains in flux, and some National students are temporarily withholding judgment, both against Sanford and their university.
“[It] would bother me if they were receiving huge donations from folks that were into that type of stuff,” one student said of the allegations. But, he continued, if Sanford is charged, “I think everyone deserves their fair shot in court to clear their name.”