William F. Buckley

The Foundation Management Institute (FMI) lets out what can only be described as a screech of joy. The cause? "Judge Neil Shuster (of Trenton, N.J.) ruled that the Robertson family is entitled to its day in court. At issue is control of the family's donations to the Robertson Foundation -- a fund now approaching $900 million."

The point of the suit: William Robertson maintains that his parents, Charles and Marie Robertson, gave the money to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs specifically to train students to work for the U.S. government. Princeton claims that the Robertsons gave Princeton the money, period.

The FMI's bulletin goes on to quote brief summaries of the meaning of the Robertson decision. A story in The Washington Post is headlined, "Exacting Donors Reshape College Giving." Joe Bull, a development official at Ohio State, is quoted: "(Donor activism is) a wave that is coming and coming fast." The Robertson decision has sent "chills down administrators' spines."

The Associated Press cited Martha Dean, head of development at Bryn Mawr: "I wouldn't say it has scared us (but) we certainly have observed it and thought, 'There but for the grace of God ...'" Robert Lindgren, former head fund-raiser at Johns Hopkins, is quoted as saying that the Robertson case has "served as an important wakeup call." And The New York Times, after examining scores of U.S. foundations, published an article whose headline says it all: "Donors Gone, Trusts Veer From Their Wishes."

While the details are different in the current season, the problem of the misuse of donors' gifts is far from new. This critic wrote about the question for The Freeman magazine back in 1954. The contentions in that case were very pointed. When the A.P. Smith Co. gave $1,500 to Princeton University, a dissenting stockholder sued. What, he demanded to know, goes on at Princeton that has to do with the health and welfare of A.P. Smith, which manufactures valves and hydrants?


William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

Be the first to read William Buckley's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.