Letter to the editor of the Providence Journal

A slightly altered version of this letter to the editor was published in the Dec. 15, 2006, Providence Journal:

Editorial misstates suit against Princeton

Your editorial “unaccountable nonprofits” seriously mischaracterized the lawsuit that was brought against Princeton University four and a half years ago by descendants of Marie Robertson, who donated $35 million to Princeton in 1961. 

First, while it is correct that donors should “have the right to expect their gifts be spent as they expressly state, in writing,” it is incorrect to suggest that in this case the donor ever wrote that the gift “was meant to be used to train diplomats, spies and the like.” To the contrary, the donor and her husband, Charles Robertson, expressly stated, in writing, that the funds were to be used solely by Princeton University to maintain and support a graduate program as part of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. This is precisely the purpose for which these funds have been spent for more than 45 years.

Second, it is correct to suggest that there is a moral issue here, but what the editorial fails to point out is that it is the Robertson descendants, not Princeton University, who are attempting to overturn two key decisions made by the donor and written down more than 45 years ago: the decision, in Charles Robertson’s words, to donate the funds “exclusively for the benefit of Princeton” and the decision to create a governance structure for the Robertson Foundation that, again in his words, “is controlled by Princeton” (as is required under applicable tax law). 

Through this lawsuit, some Robertson family members seek to seize control of the money their parents chose not to bequeath to them, but instead to donate to Princeton, and to overturn the governance mechanism their parents agreed to create that assigns majority control of the foundation board to Princeton so that it has the freedom and ability to construct a world-class graduate program. They also seek to reverse a number of decisions the board made over their objections, including one that has dramatically increased the value of the foundation’s assets (now more than $750 million). Also questionable is their use of earnings and assets from a private Robertson family foundation to finance their lawsuit and an associated public relations campaign.

Princeton believes the decisions made by Charles and Marie Robertson should continue to be respected. It takes great pride in the quality of the graduate program the Robertson Foundation supports in the Woodrow Wilson School and in the ever-growing impact of the school and its graduates on government service, public policy and international affairs. 

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