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July 31, 2002

Roberston 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 lawsuit, filed on July 17 in the New Jersey Superior Court in Mercer County, accuses the university trustees appointed to the seven-member board that oversees the Roberston Foundation, including President Tilghman, 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 $8.4 billion endowment.

The lawsuit also alleges that the university-appointed trustees that are part of the foundation board and university personnel have already started the process of transferring $54 million from a Massachusetts-based investment company to Princo.

William Robertson ’72, the son of Charles and Marie, says the foundation’s charter allows for foundation assets to be made part of the Princeton’s general endowment fund only if the foundation is dissolved. A unanimous vote from the seven-member board is required for the foundation’s dissolution. The foundation board is required to include three Robertson family members. Currently they are William Robertson, his cousin Robert Halligan *73 *62, and Katherine Ernst.

“Princeton 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. 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,” said William Robertson in a statement.

Although all university officials have been instructed not to comment on the pending litigation, the university did issue a statement after the lawsuit was filed and reported in the July 18 issue of the New York Times. According to the statement, the volunteer investment committee of the foundation’s board 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, John Sherrerd ’52, 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. This committee will continue to have power over asset allocation and to oversee and review performance of the professional manager. Should the professional manager not perform as expected — whether it be Princo or some other entity — the committee may recommend to sever the relationship,” read the university statement.

In an interview with the New York Times, President Tilghman is quoted more forcefully. “The money is not his,” Tilghman told the newspaper. “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 three family members also allege that "that the Woodrow Wilson School has failed to honor restrictions placed on the gift or to excel in the training of young people for careers in government service."

The university defended the WWS’s record in terms of placing MPA degree recipients in government and public service, 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 Roberston hopes 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. Today, the $35 million would translate to more than $190 million in 2002 dollars.

It was not until after Marie Robertson’s death in 1972 that the identity of who had set up X Foundation, as it had come to be known, was revealed. Before then, speculation at Princeton had led some to believe that the CIA had donated the $35 million.

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