Guest op-ed column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

This guest column was published in the Aug. 23, 2006, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Rebutting Robertson

William Robertson recently published a column (Aug. 13) in which he purported to offer an “ethics lesson” in charitable giving to college freshmen. His basic text was a code of ethics that was created by, among others, the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), on whose board I serve. He specifically cited a provision that gives donors the right “to be assured their gifts will be used for the purposes for which they were given.” It is sad and ironic that he should be offering this lesson, since he is seeking, through an expensive lawsuit, to undo much of what his parents did 45 years ago in making a gift to Princeton University.  

The gift was made in 1961 by Marie Robertson. With the encouragement of her husband, Charles, a 1926 graduate, she donated $35 million to Princeton. An organization known as the Robertson Foundation was created to oversee the use of the gift, and for its first 20 years, the board of the Foundation was chaired by Charles Robertson.

Despite its name, the Robertson Foundation is not what we normally mean when we use the term “foundation.” Instead it is what the tax code recognizes as a “supporting organization.” This means it exists solely to support a particular charitable entity, in this case Princeton. About 45,000 such organizations currently exist, and in each case the majority of the board must be designated by the supported organization — not the donor. While Princeton appoints a majority of the seven-member Robertson Foundation board, Robertson family members fill three of the seats. For 45 years, Princeton has used the funds provided by the Foundation solely to support and advance the Foundation’s mission, and the uses of the funds have been regularly disclosed to and reviewed by Robertson family representatives.    

Four years ago, William and several other family members filed suit against Princeton University, seeking to seize control of the funds their parents elected to donate to Princeton; seeking to overturn the governance mechanism their parents agreed to create which gives majority control to Princeton; and seeking to reverse a number of decisions that the board made over their objections, including one that has dramatically increased the value of the Foundation’s assets (now over $750 million). The family has financed the lawsuit with earnings and assets from a private family foundation, and William has declared that he "will not work with Princeton University in the future."

In his column, Mr. Robertson referred to a recent Princeton donor, Peter B. Lewis, who he said has donated $21 million to Princeton. In fact, Mr. Lewis’ gifts to Princeton exceed $220 million, and he has expressed great admiration for Princeton’s excellent management and its stellar record as steward of the gifts it receives. Universities do have ethical responsibilities to their donors, and Princeton has always taken these responsibilities very seriously.

In the specific case of the Robertson Foundation, Princeton takes great pride, not only in the exceptional growth of its endowment, but in the quality of the graduate program the Foundation supports in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; the many students from the School who go into government and other forms of public service; the School’s growing impact on government service, public policy and international affairs; and the significant improvements that have been made in the governance procedures of the Foundation. Despite Mr. Robertson’s assertions to the contrary, this lawsuit comes at a time when the leadership of the Woodrow Wilson School and Princeton’s commitment to the mission of the Foundation have never been stronger. 

Robert K. Durkee is vice president and secretary, Princeton University