TRENTON, N.J. - The children of a couple who in 1961
made one of the biggest donations in the history of academia to
Princeton University say in a lawsuit closely watched by charities
and conservative activists that the school is misusing the money and
should give it back.
Lawyers for the Robertson family and the university were due in
state Superior Court on Tuesday to start two days of legal arguments
hashing out the parameters of a trial that is likely at least
several months - and maybe years - away.
Among the seven legal motions to be argued are whether a judge or
jury should decide the facts in a trial and whether Princeton should
return millions of dollars that it has admitted it charged
inappropriately to the family’s foundation.
The late Charles and Marie Robertson anonymously donated $35 million
in 1961 to turn the graduate school at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson
School of Public and International Affairs into a finishing school
for United States government spies and diplomats.
The school is undeniably prestigious. After the Sept. 11 attacks,
for instance, it helped train Afghan leaders in the workings of
democracy and its impressive lineup of guest lecturers includes a
speech scheduled for Tuesday by Kofi Annan, the secretary general of
the United Nations.
But the number of government agents turned out by the school has
been too low for the heirs of the Robertsons.
They sued in 2002 in one of the largest ever so-called
“donor-intent” lawsuits. They say that because Princeton has not
done what it was supposed to with the money, the university should
give it back. The family says it would use the money - now worth
more than $750 million - in other ways to support Charles and Marie
While the lawsuit as a whole could reverberate throughout the
nonprofit world, the arguments scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday
are largely technical, delving into tax laws, complicated accounting
formulas and the governance of the Princeton-controlled board that
controls the Robertson Foundation and the relationship between that
foundation and the university.
Princeton is seeking to be recognized as the sole beneficiary of the
gift so the money could not be granted to other institutions.
Letting the money be taken away would be a blow not only to
Princeton, but to the freedom of universities to make their own
decisions, according to the school.
“In essence, plaintiffs seek to violate the principle of academic
freedom, substituting their judgment for that of the University as
to how best to educate its students, recruit and retain faculty,
design curriculum, sponsor research and promote an array of other
activities,” Douglas Eakeley, a lawyer for the university, said in a
Seth Lapidow, a lawyer for the Robertsons, said his clients are
especially concerned about Princeton’s effort to have a judge rather
than a jury decide the case.
“Princeton takes the position that this gift was made to Princeton
University,” Lapidow said. “The plaintiffs believe Princeton was
just the instrumentality of the gift - and the gift was to the
That, he said, is one reason the public should help judge the facts.
The other is that juries are usually involved when it comes to
awarding punitive damages, as his clients have requested.
Even if the judge rules against the family in every issue at this
week’s arguments, the case would go forward on the basis of fraud
claims against Princeton, Lapidow said.
Monday, November 27, 2006