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What your alma mater does

What your alma mater does

'Tis the season when the spirit of compassion brims over and seeks expression in heart-felt outpourings of charity, especially if the outpourings qualify for favorable tax treatment.
In honor of the season, therefore, columns this week and next will take as their subject the latest news from the complicated world of charity and philanthropy.
Next week we'll look at some unexpected social science data about who in the U.S. gives how much to whom and why. This week we'll tell the cautionary story of one family of givers who gave a lot of money to an alma mater - and now want it back.
The alma mater in question is Princeton University, from which Charles Robertson graduated in 1926. Charles went on to accumulate a pile of money investing in A&P grocery stores. By 1961 he was in a disgorging mood. Princeton stood first on his list of beneficiaries.
The Cold War was in deep freeze, and a chief concern of Robertson and his wife Marie was to fortify the U.S. government with the best educated diplomats possible. They set up the Robertson Foundation to fund a graduate program at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
The purpose of the program, said the foundation charter, was "to strengthen the Government of the United States and increase its ability and determination to defend and extend freedom throughout the world by improving the facilities for the training and education of men and women for government service."
Shamefully meager
The foundation's original assets were US$35 million in stock, which has grown to a US$750 million endowment today. Even now, the Robertson's donation remains one of the largest gifts in the history of higher education. With four trustees from the university and three trustees from the Robertson family, the foundation's board was effectively controlled by Princeton.
From then to now, the foundation has spent well over US$200 million of its assets. Yet the results, judged in light of the foundation's charter, have been shamefully meager.
Robertson's money has been used to sponsor fewer and fewer graduates for government service and more and more graduates for international finance. It has also paid for such questionable projects as a new building that houses various university offices in addition to parts of the Wilson School. Foundation funds have been used to pay salaries for fellows and faculty in the sociology, political science, and economics departments.
Different goals
The Robertsons' children - both Charles and Marie are dead - calculate that from 1990 to 2003, Princeton's Wilson School gave 885 masters degrees in public administration. Of these graduates, only 86 were placed in international affairs jobs with the federal government. The goal of Charles and Marie Robertson is no longer the goal of the institution that is spending their money.
After years of frustrated attempts to force the university to live up to its bargain, the children finally sued in 2002, hoping, they say, to redirect the foundation's assets to schools that will prepare students for government work in foreign affairs, as their parents intended.
The legal case is tricky, as even the Robertsons' supporters acknowledge. A New Jersey superior court is expected to rule early next year.
Donor intent
But the ethical case isn't tricky at all: When it comes to the Robertsons, Princeton has clearly decided to ignore the intent of its donors.
And it's this issue of "donor intent" that lends the case significance beyond Princeton.
"Over the next few decades, as the Baby Boomers retire, we're going to see a multitrillion dollar intergenerational transfer of wealth," says William Schambra, director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based research organization.
"It's 40 trillion dollars, by some estimates, and a lot of it will be given to educational institutions under the assumption that the institution will do what it says it's going to do," he says.
The Robertson case may determine how far such contracts are legally compelling.
Donor dissatisfaction isn't new. Most famously, Henry Ford II quit the Ford Foundation in the 1970s when he realized it was intent on funding politically charged - and mostly left-wing - projects that were in direct conflict with the wishes of the family whose fortune it was spending.
Backlash
Schambra suggests the Robertson's lawsuit may be the beginning of a backlash - a wider trend among big-money donors seeking to control more directly how their donations are spent.
"People want to see concrete results in their giving," he says. "They're less and less inclined to trust the reassurances of the 'experts' at a foundation."
Schambra has a simple checklist for high-end donors hoping to endow their alma maters through foundations. "Get your promises in writing," he says, "as explicitly and as thoroughly as you can."
That's what Charles Robertson thought he'd done, so Schambra goes on: "Select board members who know your intentions and will insist on carrying them out."
But what happens when they - and you - die off?
"Consider sunsetting," he says. Schambra notes that Warren Buffett himself, in establishing his foundations, has specified a date by which they must disperse their assets and go out of business.
"As long as you're alive and your friends are on your board, you stand a chance of resisting the tide to redirect your funds to other purposes," says Schambra. "But the tide is remorseless."
It's sound advice. Too bad it comes too late for the Robertsons.
Andrew Ferguson is a Bloomberg News columnist. In 1992, he wrote speeches for U.S. President George H.W. Bush. The opinions expressed are his own.


Updated : 2021-05-13 14:52 GMT+08:00