Letter to the editor of the Daily Princetonian

This letter to the editor was published in the Oct. 24, 2006, Daily Princetonian:

University maintains its confidence in Robertson lawsuit

Contrary to what you reported in your article about Dean Slaughter’s meeting with graduate students in the Woodrow Wilson School, my July letter to the Wall Street Journal did not say that William Robertson and other family members are attempting to seize control of the Robertson Foundation for their “personal benefit.” But my letter did try to make it clear that what the family’s lawsuit against the University fundamentally comes down to is an attempt by these family members to seize control of funds that their parents chose not to bequeath to them. 

The Robertsons are seeking to overturn decisions that their parents made 45 years ago when their mother gave $35 million to Princeton to support the graduate program of the Woodrow Wilson School and their mother and father agreed to create an organization known as the Robertson Foundation to oversee the use of the gift. 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 Type 1 “supporting organization” that exists solely to support a particular charitable entity, in this case Princeton. In such an organization the majority of the board must be designated by the supported organization—not the donor—which is why four of the seven trustees on the board are designated by the University. At the same time, for its first 20 years the foundation’s board was chaired by Charles Robertson and Robertson family representatives have always occupied the other three seats on the board.

In their lawsuit, William and other family members seek to seize control of the money that Marie and Charles Robertson elected to donate to Princeton and to overturn the governance mechanism their parents agreed to create that gives majority control to Princeton. As your article pointed out, this has been an exceedingly expensive lawsuit; the Robertson family members have been financing their expenses with earnings and assets from a private family foundation.

For 45 years, Princeton has used the money provided by the foundation solely to support and advance the foundation’s mission. Princeton takes great pride not only in the exceptional growth of the foundation’s endowment, especially in recent years with management by Princo, but in the quality of the graduate program the foundation supports in the Wilson School; 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 recent years in the governance procedures of the foundation. 

This lawsuit has now gone on for more than four years, 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. There will be arguments in court later this fall on each side’s motions for summary judgment on selected aspects of the case which may help clarify the issues for trial. As Dean Slaughter indicated to her graduate students, the University is very confident about the ultimate outcome of the litigation. 

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