The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After the University of Alabama returns more than $21 million, officials release internal emails saying decision was not about abortion but academic integrity

University of Alabama employees Joe Densmore, left, and Jeremy Scales take the name off the law school in Tuscaloosa last week. (Gary Cosby Jr./Tuscaloosa News/AP) (Gary Cosby Jr./Tuscaloosa News/AP)

Two days after University of Alabama System leaders returned more than $21 million to a major donor — in a dispute philanthropist Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr. said followed his outspokenness about a polarizing abortion ban in the state — school officials released documents they said proved their contention that the decision was about defending academic integrity.

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The decision to return the money and rename the law school was made before Culverhouse’s public call for a boycott of the school over the abortion issue, school officials maintain.

“Our decision was never about the issue of abortion,” Kellee Reinhart, a spokeswoman for the university system, said in a written statement Sunday. “It was always about ending the continued outside interference by the donor in the operations of The University of Alabama School of Law.”

Culverhouse’s attempt to “rewrite history by injecting one of society’s most emotional, divisive issues into this decision is especially distasteful,” Reinhart wrote.

“They’re trying to cover their a--,” Culverhouse said Sunday afternoon. He forwarded emails, which he said were between Stuart R. Bell, president of the University of Alabama, and himself, and which he said supported his position that in late May, he had asked for the return of $10 million already paid.

Culverhouse had pledged $26.5 million, in addition to earlier donations to the university.

The emails he forwarded did not mention abortion as an issue, but expressed concerns with issues at the law school and the caliber of candidates for a professorship.

He said Sunday evening that he had asked the law school dean and the president of the university to wait on a hiring decision until the state abortion ban was dealt with in federal court.

It’s not uncommon for colleges to grapple with how best to maintain academic integrity while ensuring major donors feel engaged and appreciated, or for disagreements to arise in how best to use a generous donation. But it’s rare for a dispute to become so public — and the headlines about Alabama’s ban on almost all abortions had already put a national spotlight on the state.

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The university system’s release Sunday afternoon included emails, selected by university officials, which they said establish that Culverhouse attempted to influence student admissions, scholarship awards, the hiring and firing of faculty, and the employment of the law school’s dean.

In emails shared by the system, Culverhouse appeared to be dismissive of the dean and the candidates for an endowed professorship, announced he would be there for the interviews and emphasized his generous donations. “You seem to think the quid pro quo is I give you the largest sum and commitment in the school’s history and you have no return consideration on your end of the transaction. ‘Thanks for the money — Good-Bye.’ You just were not prepared.”

An email from the dean of the law school, Mark E. Brandon, expressed concern that Culverhouse had suggested a person to help with prospective students, and asked to sit in on classes — which Brandon said was troubling without professors’ express consent, both for academic freedom reasons and because Culverhouse had said the school should fire 10 professors.

They forwarded an email dated May 25 — four days before Culverhouse called for a boycott of the university. In it, Joseph Espy III, chairman of the legal committee for the University of Alabama System board of trustees, asked the system’s general counsel for an outline of what needed to be done to return Culverhouse’s donation, rename the law school and cancel a professorship. “What he has said to our president and about our president and Dean are absolutely unacceptable,” Espy wrote.

Chancellor Finis E. St. John IV responded May 25, according to emails released by the university system, “I agree as well. We need to do this immediately because it will only get worse.”

University officials were not available for comment Sunday, Reinhart said.

Culverhouse has portrayed the issue as one of conscience: He said Friday that his mother always told him to speak out when things are wrong, and that a woman’s mind and body are her own. So last month, after the governor signed a law that would make abortion a crime punishable by up to 99 years in prison for the doctor performing the procedure, he called for a boycott of the University of Alabama.

If school officials had already decided to strip his name from the school and return more than $20 million, he asked, why didn’t they say that last month when he spoke out about abortion May 29? “If things were so terrible, why didn’t the school send back the other $9 million that’s there right now?” he asked of other donations he and his wife have made to the business school and elsewhere at the university.

On Friday, St. John said in a written statement that officials would not compromise “the values of academic integrity and independent administration at any price."