- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

The battle between Princeton University and the family of its late benefactor Charles Robertson is shaping up to be a defining moment in American higher education.

Nearly four years ago, the Robertsons sued Princeton for what they contend is the school’s continuing misuse of a 1965 bequest of $35 million to educate future diplomats and government servants at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Over the years, the fund has mushroomed to more than $700 million — a massive sum even for a highly endowed university like Princeton. Hearings for summary judgment are expected in the coming months, but these might not even be the beginning of the end. At issue is the concept of “donor intent,” which is administrator-speak for how seriously schools are expected to honor the wishes of wealthy donors who give money conditionally. As the Robertsons discovered, schools do not always use the gifts as the donors intended.

The late Mr. Robertson, a 1926 Princeton graduate and World War II naval intelligence officer, donated the money (part of the A&P; supermarket fortune his wife inherited) for a graduate program with “particular emphasis” on international affairs. The larger aim was to “strengthen the Government of the United States … by improving the facilities for the training and education of men and women for government service.” But in the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Robertson grew unhappy with the program because too few graduates were pursuing careers in foreign affairs. The last straw was Princeton’s decision five years ago to fold the money into its primary endowment, which the Robertsons contended violated their agreement dating from 1965 to oversee the money jointly from a seven-member foundation.

In February, the Wall Street Journal published an embarrassing glimpse into some of the thinking at Princeton over the years. In 1972, for instance, a Princeton dean by the name of John Lewis wrote in a confidential memo that “What bothers me” about the Robertsons’ gift is “the unspoken premise that, with respect to any American institution dealing in public affairs, the higher per-se loyalty automatically must be to the U.S. government … The university should resist a blind committment to nation-state parochialism.” Reading this, it’s hard not to sense contempt for both the Robertsons and for the relative merits of a program dedicated to government service.

Harvard’s Joseph Nye, slated to make part of Princeton’s case in court, has been quoted arguing that the Robertsons’ wishes would best be served by allowing Princeton to keep the money. Advocates for the Robertsons argue the family made its wishes clear when it donated the money, and that intent has been violated.

This case bears importantly on the future of higher education and will be watched closely. It will also have a bearing on public attitudes toward philanthropy. Princeton will need to tread carefully.

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