Suzanne Fields

'Tis the season to be charitable. It's a moral mandate for families with big bucks, who look for worthy objects of their philanthropy at the end of the year. It's a way to reward causes dear to their hearts and minds.

This year universities and colleges are particularly grateful (or should be) because in 2002 they suffered the first decline in such contributions in 15 years. The Council for Aid to Education says private gifts to institutions of higher education declined 1.2 percent to $23.9 billion. When a prosperous economy comes back into view, so may contributions.

But if you want to endow your favorite college, you should make sure your money is spent the way you say it should be spent. Endow, as Ronald Reagan might say, but verify. (Get a mean Philadelphia lawyer.) A bankable signature requires more than a little caution, and a lot of subsequent attention.

You could ask William Robertson and his two sisters, who are suing Princeton University for ignoring the wishes of their parents, who donated $39 million in 1961 with a clear understanding of how it was to be spent. That $39 million has grown to a stunning $525 million today, and the Robertson family is stunned by how Princeton has not lived up to the bargain.

The story behind the fight for control of the money is a cautionary tale for alumni, and a lesson in how small-minded university administrators can resort to legalisms when they decide they know better how to spend the money that others give.

In the year that John F. Kennedy urged fellow Americans to ask "not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," Charles Robertson (Princeton '26), with his wife, applied the admonition to his old school and donated 700,000 shares of A & P stock to pay for establishing a graduate school with a single mission, to train men and women for careers for government service in international relations.

The Robertsons remained anonymous for a decade, testifying to the seriousness of their intention, with none of the vanity of the benefactors who want their names engraved in stone, literally. So trusting were the Robertsons that they allowed Princeton to appoint four of the seven trustees of the graduate school, limiting the Robertson family to three trustees. Not very smart, as it turns out.

Today the Robertson endowment mostly pays for Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, providing all of the tuition money for students with no particular interest in international affairs. Last year only three of the 63 graduates took such government jobs.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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