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September 11, 2002:

Robertson family sues Princeton over management of $550-million foundation

By Argelio Dumenigo

Relatives of Charles Robertson '26 and his wife, Marie — the couple who anonymously donated $35 million in 1961 to set up the Robertson Foundation, which funds the Woodrow Wilson School — are suing Princeton for what they called the university's "betrayal of the Robertson family's trust" and its failure to fulfill the foundation's mission of training government servants in international affairs. The foundation's endowment has grown to more than $550 million.

The lawsuit, filed on July 17 in New Jersey, accuses university-appointed trustees on the board that oversees the Robertson Foundation with developing "a scheme to transfer control of the investment of the foundation's assets to the Princeton University Investment Company, Princo, and to commingle the foundation's assets with the university endowment." Princo manages Princeton's endowment.

The defendants named in the lawsuit are Princeton University, President Tilghman, John Sherrerd '52, Peter Wendell '72, John Kenefick '43, and the Robertson Foundation. Tilghman, Wendell, a university trustee and a director of Princo, Sherrerd, and Kenefick, both university trustees emeritus, are all members of the foundation's board.

The board also includes three Robertson family members: Charles and Marie's sonWilliam Robertson, his cousin Robert Halligan *73 *62, who got his degrees at WWS, and Katherine Ernst.

University officials would not comment on the pending litigation, but they did issue a statement after the lawsuit was filed. According to the statement, the volunteer investment committee of the foundation's board has recommended adding a layer of professional, day-to-day management of its $550-million endowment and is only evaluating options, including Princo, in that regard. The three-member investment committee includes William Robertson, Sherrerd, and John Beck '53.

"There is no proposal to commingle funds of the Robertson endowment with the university's general endowment. Nor is there a proposal to disband the three-member investment committee," read the statement.

But William Robertson said the university "has violated the stated intent and trust of my parents and my family."

"Contrary to the public comments from Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, the money donated by my family was not a direct grant to Princeton University. The money belongs to the Robertson Foundation, which is distinctly separate from Princeton University and has a defined purpose and mission," said Robertson. "My parents made it absolutely clear that the assets of the foundation were not to be commingled with the Princeton University endowment. Over the last six months, Princeton has taken a number of steps to do just this."

In an interview with the New York Times, President Tilghman said, "The money is not his. The money belongs to the foundation. The money was given to the university by his parents almost 40 years ago now. It is not his money to decide what to do with."

The Robertson family members also allege, "that the Woodrow Wilson School has failed to—excel in the training of young people for careers in government service."

The university defended the school's record on MPA degree recipients, citing that for the last five years, between 37 and 55 percent of MPA students who entered the job market after leaving Princeton went into service in government and international organizations.

"If we have not fulfilled our mission, then I don't think you can find any other school of public affairs in the country that has done it," Tilghman told the TImes.

But that is what Robertson wants to do if he wins the lawsuit. The family plans to seek out another school to carry out the foundation's mission. No schools have been mentioned yet.

Charles and Marie Robertson, an heiress to the A&P grocery store fortune, made their anonymous $35 million donation — what could still be the largest gift of its kind in the history of higher education — with 700,000 shares of A&P stock. It was not until after Marie Robertson's death in 1972 that they were identified as the donors, ending campus rumors that the CIA had donated the $35 million.