Tuesday, June 27, 2006

‘He’s away on safari’ - Oracle chief’s $115M never gets to Harvard

Maybe Harvard honchos should have spoken to Larry Ellison’s three ex-wives before taking one of the software tycoon’s promises at face value.
Instead the university has spent a year vainly trying to get the Silicon Valley billionaire to make good on his vow to donate $115 million to set up a new institute for global health.
Now it looks like plans for the “Ellison Institute of World Health” at Harvard, and its 130 jobs, are on hold indefinitely. Three people hired in top positions have actually been let go.


It was in March of last year that Harvard’s then-president Larry Summers, and the university’s Global Health Initiative chief Christopher Murray, persuaded Ellison, who has made $16 billion at software company Oracle, to make the donation.
The agreement came after 10 months of discussions.
No doubt the idea appealed to Ellison’s famous vanity as well as his better instincts. After all, the institute would bear his name. And Bill Gates, Ellison’s bete noire, already had his own world health charity.
Ellison promptly leaked news of his generosity - first to the San Francisco Chronicle and then, in more detail, to The Wall Street Journal.
Perhaps he was so excited about the prospects of helping the world’s poorest people that he just couldn’t keep it to himself.
But when Murray tried contacting Ellison’s office to get the check, the billionaire was suddenly, mysteriously, unavailable.
And so he remains. Twelve months later, and counting.
“I’m sorry, he’s away on safari,” an Ellison flack told Murray at one point.
Ellison and Oracle spokespeople did not return repeated calls yesterday seeking comment. Harvard says its last communication with Ellison was in November.
What’s going on?
It’s possible the mercurial Ellison, now 62, has forgotten, or lost track of, his pledge.
And you could argue that Harvard’s loss of Larry Summers, a formidable fund-raiser, hasn’t helped.
But it doesn’t really explain forgetting to mail a $115 million check.
Alternatively, some mischievous people might note that Ellison made his generous promise at a time when it might prove useful to him.
A year ago he was trying to settle a troublesome lawsuit. He was being sued for having sold $900 million worth of Oracle stock in early 2001, less than a month before news of a profits slump caused the price to collapse.
The tycoon was working on a settlement in which he would admit no wrongdoing, in return for giving a separate chunk of cash to charity.
Ellison was able to cite his promise to Harvard as evidence of his bona fides and generosity.
Is that far too cynical an explanation for Ellison’s behavior?
We’ll see. It depends upon whether the check is actually in the mail - or merely “in the mail.”

- - - - -
If we are going to make the Fluffernutter “the official state sandwich,” as state Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein (D-Revere) proposes, why don’t we charge Fluff’s manufacturers, Durkee-Mower Inc., of Lynn for the privilege?
We could have sponsorship,” jokes Reinstein. “And instead of the FleetCenter, we could have the Fluff Center.”
Ditto a proposal to make Necco candy wafers “the official state wafer.” A bill to that effect has been bogged down for two years. History shows a little “candy” can get things moving on Beacon Hill.

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