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‘That bridge is gone. They burned it’: One of the University of Alabama’s biggest donors responds after trustees return $21 million gift

The name of philanthropist Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr. is removed Friday from the law school at the University of Alabama after voted to return more than $20 million donated by Culverhouse. (Blake Paterson/AP)

His mother taught him to speak out when things are wrong, philanthropist Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr. said, and he has been doing that all his life. She also told him a woman’s body and a woman’s mind are her own, and that men don’t have a right to tell women what to do.

That lesson stuck, he said, and it’s one he applied last month when he called for a boycott of the University of Alabama after the state passed a law that would make abortion a crime punishable by up to 99 years in prison for the doctor performing the procedure, with no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

Governor signs Alabama abortion ban, galvanizing support on both sides

On Friday, school officials spoke out, as well. The University of Alabama System Board of Trustees voted to return more than $20 million that Culverhouse had donated.

Workers removed the Culverhouse name from a sign for the law school Friday.

School officials rejected the idea that the board vote had been politically motivated.

The decision “was a direct result of Mr. Culverhouse’s ongoing attempts to interfere in the operations of the Law School,” Kellee Reinhart, a spokeswoman for the university system, said in a statement Friday. “That was the only reason the Board voted to remove his name and return his money. Any attempt by Mr. Culverhouse to tie this action to any other issue is misleading and untrue.”

University and system representatives did not immediately respond Friday to a request for more details about what were described as attempts to interfere in school policy.

Thousands across the country in May decried restrictive new abortion laws in Georgia and Alabama. A similar law is headed to the Missouri governor’s desk. (Video: REF:useroa/The Washington Post)

Chancellor Finis E. St. John IV said in a written statement Friday that “it has become clear that the donor’s expectations for the use and application of that gift have been inconsistent with the essential values of academic integrity and independent administration of the Law School and the University. Despite the diligent efforts and good faith of our Dean and President, there is no path forward consistent with those values.”

Donors do not dictate school policy, he said, and it was for those reasons, “alone,” that he recommended returning the gift and dropping the Culverhouse name from the law school.

Officials would not compromise “the values of academic integrity and independent administration at any price,” he wrote.

Ronald Gray, president pro tem of the board of trustees, said in a statement Friday that while the board’s responsibilities are broad and decisions are frequently complex, “this decision was not difficult or complex. This decision is clearly the right one and is in the best interest of The University of Alabama, this System, and this Board of Trustees.”

The wire transfer of $21.5 million was processed after the board’s action Friday, Reinhart said.

Culverhouse had pledged a $26 million gift, but $21.5 million is the amount received to date, she said.

Culverhouse said Friday he was disappointed, and somewhat humiliated, to see two men in the middle of the day knocking his name off the law-school sign.

But when he looked at the bigger picture, he said, “what comes out is an irony that a law school would not recognize a person’s First Amendment rights.”

He noted that Alabama’s governor, who signed the law, is a member of the board that voted to return his donation.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Kay Ivey (R) said the governor did not attend the Board of Trustees meeting. “She believes this is a matter entirely at the discretion of the university,” spokeswoman Gina Maiola wrote in an email.

If there were concerns, Culverhouse said, why didn’t university officials call him to talk? He dismissed the idea that there was any issue other than his outspokenness about the abortion ban, an issue that has galvanized national attention.

The law was welcomed by antiabortion activists calling for a national reckoning on the issue and hoping to challenge the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. It was decried by opponents who saw it as an erosion of women’s rights.

“The state’s action nauseates me,” Culverhouse said.

“That bridge is gone,” he said of the University of Alabama. “They burned it.”

Televangelist Pat Robertson, Trump 2020 campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany and other conservatives voiced opposition to the Alabama abortion law. (Video: REF:carena/The Washington Post)

Culverhouse questioned why his other donations — more than $9 million, he said, to other programs, including the business school, women’s golf and ballet — were not returned.

He had kind words for the university’s president, and its legendary football coach. Culverhouse chose to donate to the University of Alabama just as his father had done, even though he has lived and practiced law in Florida for many years. “It’s where I grew up. It’s home. I thought I could have an impact,” he said. “And — it was home.”

Apparently, he added, he did have an impact. “It just wasn’t the one I wanted."

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.