Exacting Donors Reshape College Giving

Bill Robertson in front of the hall named for his parents at Princeton. The family is in a court battle with the university.
Bill Robertson in front of the hall named for his parents at Princeton. The family is in a court battle with the university. (By Emile Wamsteker -- Bloomberg News)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Geri Cecil loved Randolph-Macon Woman's College from the moment she met people on the Lynchburg campus, and every year after she graduated in 1968 she gave the school money. She believed in its system of education, made lifelong friends, even served on the board of trustees for several years.

That's all over now.

Last year, Cecil felt blindsided by a major change at the college: plans to admit men. She said she didn't hear of the proposal until shortly before it was approved and saw alumnae such as herself stonewalled when they objected. So she stopped donating -- forever, she said.

When she drives by campus, Cecil, a boarding-school teacher who still lives in Lynchburg, tries not to look. It feels like she has lost a close friend, she said.

"I certainly have learned one thing," Cecil said. "I will never make an unrestricted pledge to anyone, ever again."

Cecil is part of a new generation of college donors -- savvy, activist and willing to stop giving if they don't like the way their money is being used.

Donating "has become a much more engaged process," said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who just stepped down from his long presidency at George Washington University. "Increasingly, people have points of view. The put-the-money-on-the-stump-and-run benefactors of earlier days are diminishing."

Alumni now are far more likely to give to specific projects rather than the operating funds that keep universities running and to expect detailed reports on how the money is spent. Some ask to meet the students who win the scholarships, select the professors who get the chair, scrutinize financial reports, weigh competing construction bids, choose the paintings for the gallery walls.

And if the donors are dead, their heirs are intervening in how the money is spent, said Joe Bull, who recently stepped down as director of planned giving at Ohio State University. "That's a wave that is coming and coming fast. I think in general we're a much more distrusting society than we used to be -- and some of these gifts are so large, they should be scrutinized."

Eyes on Princeton

One closely watched case that sends chills down administrators' spines is playing out at Princeton University, where school officials have spent years tussling with donors' heirs over a fund that has grown to more than $840 million.

The Robertson Foundation started in 1961 with $35 million of stock in the A&P supermarket company given to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs -- at the time, one of the largest gifts ever to higher education.

Marie Robertson was clear about her intent: "to establish . . . a Graduate School, where men and women dedicated to public service may prepare themselves for careers in government service," particularly international relations. They set up a foundation to administer the gift and gave three of seven seats on the board to family members.

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