Letter to the editor of the San Jose Mercury News

Jan. 5, 2009, 4 p.m.

This letter to the editor was submitted on Jan. 5, 2009, to the San Jose Mercury News:

Frederic Fransen’s Dec. 31 opinion (“Lawsuit settlement’s message is: Donors beware”) draws the wrong message from the settlement of the lawsuit brought against Princeton University by descendants of Charles and Marie Robertson. The real message is that a university can be sued even when it fully adheres to the written agreement it reaches with a donor, in this case Marie Robertson, who gave $35 million more than 47 years ago to support the graduate program of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. In their lawsuit, some of her descendants sought to overturn that agreement and substitute their own ideas about how the funds should be managed and spent.

The case was settled when the descendants decided not to take the case to trial and when they had depleted most of the assets of the family’s charitable foundation, which they used to pay for their legal and public relations expenses. One sad message of this case is that a family willing to use a family foundation to pay for an expensive “scorched earth” legal and public relations strategy can cause millions of dollars to be diverted from charitable and educational purposes.

Princeton agreed to settle the case for an amount roughly equivalent to the cost of taking the case through trial—an amount that will be paid out over a ten-year period and used solely to support charitable purposes. Fortunately, as a result of the settlement, the bulk of Marie Robertson’s gift is now protected from further attempts to divert it to other uses and it will continue in perpetuity at Princeton, as she intended in making her gift. 

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