When students step into Lowry Hall to visit the University of Missouri's College of Arts & Science student counseling center, they are greeted by a larger-than-life, three-quarter portrait of a dapper, balding man smiling from business offices that tower over the Houston skyline.
There's nothing identifying the man in the portrait, but a student passing by guesses it must be "Mr. Lowry," the guy whose name is on the building.
Nope. The smiling man is Kenneth L. Lay, former longtime chief executive officer of the Enron Corp., which is fast becoming one of the most infamous businesses in U.S. history. The portrait is by top-shelf watercolorist Paul Jackson, whose work fetches six figures.
So what is a pricey portrait of Lay doing in such a place of honor on this leafy college campus? Lay is what the University of Missouri calls a "very distinguished benefactor" after donating $1.2 million to endow the Kenneth L. Lay Chair in International Economics.
The seat is meant for an internationally esteemed scholar, but lately the unfilled job is more like a punch line -- even if some folks in Lay's home state don't get the joke.
"It's not like it's the Osama bin Laden chair," Michael Podgursky, chairman of the university's economics department, told reporters after scandalous details about Enron's financial dealings became public.
Still, there's no denying that the donations from Lay's family foundation and Enron have placed school administrators at the University of Missouri and several other campuses in an awkward position of trying to fill scholarly jobs with titles that prompt giggles and guffaws.
The University of Houston has two professorships -- one filled and one unfilled -- named for Lay. Keith Poole, the Kenneth L. Lay Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston, knows all about being the butt of jokes.
"The standard jokes from my friends are about whether or not the checks have cleared," he says.
At Missouri, it's not so much the jokes that some worry about as what they see as a real ethical problem -- accepting money from potentially tainted sources. Enron's own internal investigation outlines the financial tricks used to inflate the company's stock, stock that was the initial source of the 1999 donation to Missouri. (University officials, by policy, promptly sold the Enron shares.)
The MU situation has sparked a low-intensity war on its campus, pitting professors against professors, who have been battling it out in meetings and open letters.
A group of more than two dozen MU faculty members say the Ken Lay Chair is an embarrassment to the oldest land-grant institution west of the Mississippi River.
"We are wary of the possible tarnishing of the reputation and integrity of the University of Missouri that might result from a public identification of the university with Lay and the questionable business and accounting practices he has pursued that led to his personal wealth," the professors wrote in an open letter to the faculty.
Some academic officials insist, however, that the Lay money poses no problems.
"He certainly hasn't been indicted," says University of Missouri economics professor Kenneth R. Troske, who is leading up the Ken Lay Chair search committee.
That's certainly true, but the MU academics are wielding the Powers report -- Enron's investigation -- and board minutes, which reveal many damaging facts about Lay's stewardship. He was chief executive when he and Enron's board of directors waved conflict-of-interest rules to permit the company's chief financial officer to create special-purpose entities that hid debts, inflated profits and enriched top executives. When those entities became public, Enron's stock price cratered, forcing the company into bankruptcy protection and costing thousands of employees their retirement savings.
"We've been arguing [that] we shouldn't wait for the smoking gun, that what has been revealed so far is enough to make naming a chair after Kenneth Lay more than questionable," says political science professor Paul Wallace.
But in a time of declining state education funds, consternation only goes so far. Some professors want Lay's name off the chair and the money returned. There are others, including Wallace, who say dumping Lay's name would suffice. The money could still be put to good use, they argue.
"To return it back to the Kenneth Lay Foundation is not going to send it to Mother Teresa's orphanages," Wallace says. "We would like the money to be used in a moral fashion."
Regardless, all the objections have struck a nerve.
MU administrators have quietly begun an internal review to determine whether to take Lay's name off the position -- or, if Lay doesn't agree, to give back the money. No decision has been made. But tomorrow MU Chancellor Richard Wallace, who is an economics scholar by training and still keeps an office in the economics department, will meet with the provost and the executive committee of the MU Faculty Council to discuss the matter.
"By and large, the executive committee feels uneasy about the dilemma that the university is in," says Russ Zguta, the history professor who chairs the committee.
Spurred by sociology professor Clarence Lo, Chancellor Wallace met with the disgruntled professors and the chair's defenders on April 1. The meeting was heated, according to Lo and others who attended. Economic teachers praised Lay, calling him a creative and innovative business leader. They noted that Henry Ford had anti-Semitic beliefs, yet Ford Foundation money is not considered tainted. They noted that universities were created with money from robber barons.
It was liberal arts professors who raised the objections to the chairmanship, professor Dick Russell says.
Lines have to be drawn someplace, they argued.
The economics professors outlined their defense of the chair in their own open letter.
"If higher education institutions rejected philanthropic contributions from controversial American businessmen, prestigious institutions such as Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Carnegie-Mellon, Vanderbilt and Duke University, to name just a few, would not exist," Podgursky and Troske wrote.
"Moreover, faculty at MU and other research institutions routinely accept grants that support research and teaching from the Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Milken and other foundations in spite of the controversial, and sometimes illegal, behavior of the benefactors."
The man who is the focal point of all the controversy moved with his family to Columbia from the Ozarks when he was a boy. His father was a local preacher, and Lay received a business degree from the University of Missouri in 1964 and a master's in economics a year later.
His Missouri education led him to Washington when one of his economics professors, Pinkney Walker, became chairman of the agency that preceded the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Walker hired Lay as an assistant. Later, Lay went on to an assistant secretary job in the Interior Department, where he became an evangelist for deregulation.
"I am convinced that a great deal of my professional and personal success over the years was made possible by my education at MU," Lay once said in a university alumni publication.
That MU training is another thing worrying some professors. They wonder what it was about Lay's education at Missouri that left him unprepared to stop the kind of activities at Enron that now are the subject of congressional, civil and criminal investigations.
"Ken Lay was trained here," Lo says. Now, perhaps it would be fitting for the Ken Lay money to be used to beef up ethical training of business students or study how corporations can manipulate energy markets to enrich their bottom lines.
The Missouri professors are also calling for a policy to address potentially tainted money. They note that Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, both convicted of securities fraud, allowed their names to be taken off endowed academic positions. They hope Lay will make a similar offer.
In the meantime, MU officials have been rather mum about the future of the chair.
"We wouldn't speculate on anything that has not been decided yet," says spokesman Christian Basi.
Campus fundraisers, however, have asked portrait artist Jackson to quickly finish his next portrait so that Lay's painting can be moved "to another place of honor," which coincidentally will be less prominent than its current location in the administration building of the College of Arts & Science.
The economics department still has, for now, a posting circulating for a "prominent" scholar. "Candidates should have substantial scholarly achievements," the listing says.
Before Enron's fall, the job was offered to one candidate, but it was rejected because of the Midwest weather, Basi said.
Applications are still arriving. There are nearly 50 so far, Troske says.
"We would have filled it long ago if we lowered our standards," says Troske, who is leading the search. "We have a couple of applicants we are actively considering -- not to the point where we are ready to offer the job tomorrow."