Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

John Menard Loves Universities

With conditions. They get donations. He gets recognition and an honorary degree.

By - Dec 30th, 2020 03:54 pm

John Menard Jr. Photo by Travisvanvelzen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

John Menard Jr. Photo by Travisvanvelzen (Own work) (CC BY-SA 4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In the 103-year-history of UW-Eau Claire, it had never awarded an honorary degree for lifetime achievement. The first such degree was given in May 2019 to John Menard, the billionaire owner of the Menard’s home improvement chain. 

It was was called a “doctorate of humane letters,” but there are some who would not necessarily think of Menard as a humanitarian. A successful businessman, yes: Menard’s is one of the biggest home improvement chains in the nation, with 325 stores and 41 manufacturing facilities located in 14 Midwestern states, and an advertising jingle, “Save big money at Menard’s,” we all probably know by heart. 

But Menard, as Urban Milwaukee has reported, has been one of the worse environmental violators of any business leader in Wisconsin, is aggressively anti-union and was found in violation of federal labor laws by the NLRB, and is also known for punitive policies imposed on store managers. His style of employee relations, one columnist observed, is like “something exhumed from the Bronze Age with all its primitive logic intact.”

All of which has helped Menard become one of the richest people on earth with a net worth of $18.5 billion, according to Bloomberg.

UW-Eau Claire, in awarding its degree, took note of Menard’s “status as one of Wisconsin’s leading entrepreneurs; his decades of donations to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and community projects such as the new YMCA indoor tennis center and Mayo Clinic Health System’s emergency medicine facility” both in Eau Claire and “both named in his honor.”

Getting things named in his honor has become a specialty of Menard. In September 2019, Menard and his family gave $2.1 million to the UW-La Crosse business college, the largest gift in the school’s 110-year history, as the LaCrosse Tribune reported. The university, in turn, has created the The Menard Family Midwest Initiative for Economic Engagement and Research, which will use the donated money to support scholarships, research projects and other hands-on learning opportunities for business students. 

Three months later, in December 2019, UW-Stout announced that Menard and his family would donate $2.36 million donation to the Stout University Foundation to expand the Center for Study of Institutions and Innovation.

The center was started in 2017 with a donation from the Charles Koch Foundation, “to facilitate civil and rational debate and research on civil liberty issues like freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly,” as a story by Eau Claire’s News 18 reported.

But its name will now be changed to the Menard Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation. 

In September 2020, Menard donated $3 million to UW-Eau Claire to fund the school’s Center for Constitutional Studies, which the university in turn has renamed as the Menard Center for Constitutional Studies. 

This center, too, has received funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, but only Menard’s name will be attached to this august center.

All told, Menard has spent well less than 1% of his total wealth to get his name emblazoned on three different fancy sounding university centers and beat out Charles Koch both times in getting that recognition. No doubt there are many other universities lining up to offer a similar deal. 

7 thoughts on “Back in the News: John Menard Loves Universities”

  1. frank a schneiger says:

    Two conflicting thoughts. First, put yourself in the position of a leader of a supposedly public institution that receives less than 20% of its budget from the state, but which keeps its name on all of the buildings. What would you do if such an offer were made in this environment? The second thought was of the girl who lived on 39th Street many years ago whose reputation was that she would do anything for anybody for a Granpa Graf’s Root Beer.

  2. B says:

    I guess when you are a billionaire you have to compete with other billionaires somehow. I suppose giving gifts to universities is better than who has the biggest yacht.

    Think of the impact that higher wages for Menard’s employees would have on Eau Claire and La Crosse.

  3. Keith Prochnow says:

    John Menard, the richest man in Wisconsin, but probably the most miserable one, too. I haven’t spent a dollar at one his stores in years, maybe decades. I’d rather profits from my purchases stay with Milwaukee-owned hardware stores, but better they go back to headquarters at Home Depot or Lowe’s than onto John Menard’s pile.

  4. KrisG-K says:


  5. Ryan Cotic says:

    So Bruce Murphy is upset that John Menard is donating millions to to colleges? This seems very petty and shallow to write an article about.

  6. frank a schneiger says:

    Ryan Coltic: Here are some reasons why I don’t think the column is petty. First, the decline in state support for what are supposed to be state universities and colleges puts their leaders in the position of constantly searching for money, often from people who have an agenda, bad people, or those who want name recognition that they may or may not deserve. I might add that these practices have also put college out of financial reach for large numbers of low-income young people. As one of them 6 decades ago, I was able to go to UWM because tuition was $160 per year ($1,600 in current dollars.) If it had been what it is today, I would never have gone to college.

    Second, there is a strong trend in this kind of support to turn these schools into little more than business training centers, at the expense of the humanities and other areas. And, in addition, to turn them into centers of conservative/right-wing thought. (note: that is not to say that they should be centers of left-wing thought.)

    Finally, unlike contributions from the “little people,” this kind of giving never pinches the richest people. Giving never means giving up something else as it does for most of us, because there is so much that they could never spend anyway. Extraordinary fact: 3 individual in our country have more wealth than the bottom 160 million Americans.

    That is why I don’t believe Bruce Murphy is being petty.

  7. Thomas Martinsen says:

    I have bought products from Menard’s because they were reaonably priced. I have had troubles returning bad products to those stores. Shopping at Menards is a crap shoot.

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