Paul L. Caron

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Real Story Behind Alabama’s Return Of $26m Gift To Law School Donor

Following up on my previous posts (links below):  Martin Morse Wooster (Capital Research Center), The Real Story Behind Alabama’s Return of $26m Gift to Law School Donor:

Alabama Logo (2019) (Crossed Out)What can donors and colleges learn from the Culverhouse episode?

First, the issue of abortion is a smokescreen that played no role in the arguments Culverhouse had with the University of Alabama.

Second, the hiring and firing of faculty is a bright line that no donor can cross. Donors should realize that they can have no say in hiring professors.

Third, Culverhouse should have realized that just because he put up a lot of money for an endowed chair that the money could not buy talent. Maybe the big name constitutional law professors were happy where they were. It’s also plausible that the finalists for the chair were the most qualified ones willing to move.

Fourth, the University of Alabama did a poor job in communicating with their most generous donor. The school was right to say that Culverhouse couldn’t just walk into classes unannounced. But why couldn’t they ask professors if Culverhouse could sit in? Why couldn’t there be a day where Culverhouse observes three classes, gives a talk in the afternoon, and then hangs out at a coffeehouse with students?

Universities have to figure out how to have donors involved in giving while making sure that academic freedom, which includes the power to hire and fire, is respected. I’m glad that the University of Alabama published their correspondence with Hugh Culverhouse, but the emails show they did a poor job in dealing with a very generous—and very demanding—donor.

Prior TaxProf Blog coverage:

Legal Ed News, Legal Education | Permalink


[I left this comment at the Philanthropy Daily site where this blog was originally posted]:

I was intrigued by your conclusion that the abortion issue played no role in the decision to return his donations. The decision to return was made by the trustees approximately ten days after Culverhouse announced his call for a boycott of the law school because of the abortion issue. I am at a loss to understand how a board could have ignored such a call in their assessment of their relationship with such a donor.

Based on my many years of experience as a director (albeit, of for profit corporations) and an advisor to boards (in both the for profit and non profit world), I would conclude that to ignore that would be a breach of one’s duty of care to the institution.

On the other hand, if the board based its decision solely on the conflicts that the dean of the law school was having with a longtime major donor I would have thought it important to consider whether the dean was part of the problem. A handful of emails would not suffice for a board to reach a conclusion that such an important longstanding relationship with a major donor family should end. It might call for further investigation by a committee of the board, advised by appropriate outside experts. To act on what is disclosed in the email trail, alone, would arguably be a breach of the board’s duty of care.

In other words, what we know publicly – and despite your catchy headline you don’t seem to know any more than anyone else outside UA – points to the abortion issue (in particular, the boycott call) as being a, if not the, critical factor here. In my view, it’s the only one that could have justified such a prompt decision by the board.

Posted by: Stephen F. Diamond | Jul 14, 2019 6:59:44 PM