Saturday, October 27, 2007

Another Tiger, Another Robertson, Another Dispute

Tiger disputes (see preceding post) seem to be proliferating like sequels to Halloween movies.

This one involves Princeton University and raises a vexing question: When universities or other nonprofits receive large sums of money to be used for a specified purpose, can or should they be compelled to honor that specification?

The New York Times explains:
In a legal battle watched nervously by universities around the country, a New Jersey judge yesterday sent to trial a dispute between Princeton University and the heirs of a supermarket fortune and left open the possibility that Princeton could lose a donation that is now worth $880 million.
The dispute centers on whether Princeton University has adhered to the Robertsons’ wishes; Mrs. Robertson, an heir to the A.&P. supermarket fortune, gave Princeton $35 million in 1961 for its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Her children say the money was intended to prepare students for work in federal government, especially in international affairs. They say, though, that few graduates have taken such jobs and that Princeton has used the money for many of its other needs.

For a brief history of the Woodrow Wilson School and the Robertsons' gift, see here.

Was the purpose of the Robertsons' gift specific enough to argue about? At home and abroad, the U.S. government must deal with everything from stolen antiquities to digital piracy, from climate change to threatened pandemics. Is there any course taught at Princeton that might not benefit some member of government at some time?

While we await a judicial answer, one group is sure to keep on benefiting. Lawyers have already billed the Robertson family more than $20 million. Princeton has paid its lawyers a similar amount.

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