Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Contributions to Princeton University fell by about $100 million — or 45 percent — in 2004 while overall giving to U.S. colleges and universities rose 3.4 percent, according to a national survey.

Ann Kaplan, author of the survey by the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), said the $125.1 million in gifts and bequests Princeton received in 2004 was its lowest amount in private donations in eight years.

“It received $117 million in 1996” and $227.5 million in fiscal 2003, she said.

CAE’s annual Voluntary Support of Education survey, which this year examined data from nearly 1,000 four-year institutions, showed that Princeton’s ranking in private donations plunged from 17th in 2003 to 33rd in 2004.

“There’s definitely been a drop [at Princeton], but I can’t speculate as to the cause,” Ms. Kaplan said. But she added that it’s not uncommon for universities to experience sharp fluctuations in giving.

“Sometimes institutions experience declines [in contributions] after getting very large single gifts the year before,” Ms. Kaplan said. She described 2003 as a “very strong year” for Princeton in terms of private donations.

Others are more skeptical.

Heirs to the A&P supermarket fortune, who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit that says Princeton misused millions of dollars of foundation money, suggest the “financial free fall” could be related to publicity about their litigation.

Princeton denies misusing cash that the late Charles and Marie Robertson provided. In 1961, they donated 700,000 shares of A&P stock, then valued at $35 million, to establish a foundation to help prepare graduate students for careers in government diplomacy.

But the “plaintiffs charge Princeton with ignoring the donors’ intent, improperly spending more than $100 million on nongermane programs,” said Herb Berkowitz, a spokesman for the Robertson family.

Princeton rejects the notion that the lawsuit, which seeks control of an endowed foundation now worth more than $600 million, was a factor in the decline in contributions.

One reason the drop in donations was so steep, university officials told the Trenton (N.J.) Times, was that income from private gifts had risen by more than $40 million the previous year to reach a school record.

Princeton spokesman Eric R. Quinones also noted that the university has “fewer alumni than its peer institutions and does not have professional schools that are generally sources of substantial giving.”

What’s more, Mr. Quinones said, many schools that “ranked highly” in CAE’s 2004 survey have major capital campaigns, while Princeton does not.

But Mr. Berkowitz said he has to wonder whether the lawsuit was a reason “Princeton … took it on the chin” last year.

“When people flee an undesirable regime, we say they are voting with their feet. Perhaps there is an equivalent here — people voting with their checkbooks,” he said.

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