Two opposite tales divulge past of Wilson School suit
There is a camera on the ground floor of a green window-paned building eight miles south of the University. What it was recording on Jan. 14 could help Princeton keep the $558,348,781 endowment that mostly pays for the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs each year — or help lose it.
The University is under attack by the family of Charles '26 and Marie Robertson, who in 1961 endowed a foundation to dramatically expand the Wilson School.
The Robertson family sued in July 2002 for control of the endowment, outraged because it believes the University has tried to subvert the foundation's financial independence and ignore its main principle: training students for work in government, especially international relations.
Six months later, the camera was focusing in on Thomas Wright '62, who as its secretary and treasurer since 1976, had taken notes at every important meeting and correspondence of the Robertson Foundation. But Wright does not only work for the Foundation. He is also the top-ranked nonacademic officer of the University, and a lawyer for the Robertson family wanted to know if his loyalties were with the Foundation or University.
The question for Wright became: Do Princeton, the Wilson School and the Robertson Foundation have the same goals?
"The goals are the same," Wright declared during testimony.
But whether they really are — or should be — is at the center of a case that may be most damaging to the University if lost. A resolution seems far off, with a ruling by Judge Neil Shuster of Mercer County Superior Court on Monday that sets the trial date in October 2005, giving the parties more than two years to build their cases, as well as time to enter non-binding mediation. In June, Shuster rejected a University procedural request to throw the case out.
"I'm stunned by this position. Princeton has lots of employees, lots of constituencies," said Chip Rice, a Robertson family lawyer, referring to Wright's response. "Of course [Princeton's] goals are broader, and there's nothing wrong with those goals. But it has to spend its own money for those."
If the case goes to trial, it will be a massive, expensive effort involving hundreds of thousands of papers and thousands of hours of testimony. But the core of each side's case is evident in basic documents filed already.
The Robertsons convey decades of concern by family members about the direction of the Wilson School and the University's treatment of them. In contrast, the University suggests years of amiable relations interrupted only recently when William Robertson '72, the son of the original donors and chief plaintiff, raised new concerns and abruptly sued.
To outside observers, the Robertson Foundation seemed exemplary, ballooning the original $35 million gift to nearly $600 million today. But at an April 2002 meeting of the Foundation's board of trustees, a clash between William Robertson and the University surfaced.
Robertson had led a three-person committee that achieved the remarkable growth in the Foundation's assets. The Wilson School, with the largest endowment of any public policy school in the country, could recruit a famous faculty and set up a topnotch graduate program.
The University and Robertsons have shared control of the Foundation, with four trustees appointed by the University and three by the family.
But at that April meeting, it became clear to Robertson that the University was looking into transferring control of the Foundation's endowment to the Princeton Investment Company, PRINCO, the University office that invests its own $9 billion endowment. Robertson's colleagues on the investment committee, John Sherrerd '52 and John Beck '53, had suggested the move. Robertson had been wary of University efforts to take control of the Foundation's assets, and he issued at that meeting and in other correspondence many complaints. He opposed transferring control to PRINCO and also feared that Robertson assets would be combined with the University's.
The suit tries to demonstrate a pattern of sidestepping the family about financial issues and other concerns. It is a pattern the University denies, saying that when concerns were raised, University officials reacted instantly, providing family members with all the information they needed.
"Princeton is certainly addressing and has addressed a number of concerns that are brought up by the family," said Douglas Eakeley, the University's lawyer in the case. At the April meeting, the University agreed to provide the Robertson family with information regarding all major future spending projects.
For family members, though, the construction of Wallace Hall in 2000 was a gross example of how the University mistreated them. They say the University promised that Foundation money would be used to supplement outside money only if the University couldn't find other support. The University later extracted $13 million from the Foundation, informing the Robertsons afterward, according to the family.
The Robertsons also take issue with the purpose of Wallace Hall, because it houses child health, population and other programs that they do not think fit the mission of the Foundation. They believe Wallace demonstrates a broader failure on the part of the Wilson School to fulfill the Foundation's charter to train students for government service.
The Foundation's 1961 charter says its purpose is to support a graduate program in the Wilson School "where men and women dedicated to public service may prepare themselves for careers in government service, with particular emphasis on . . . international relations."
In her first major address to the Robertson Foundation this spring as the new Wilson School dean, Anne-Marie Slaughter '80 explained her vision for the school and tried to show that the graduate Wilson School program does as good a job as similar programs at sending students into government, with between 40 and 50 percent entering the public sector.
Her address and attached 30-page plan for the Wilson School's future, the University argued, aimed to satisfy the concerns of the Robertson family. Slaughter intends to point the School in a new direction, one that will focus more sharply on international relations and public service.
The family had been highly critical of Slaughter's predecessor, Michael Rothschild, who solicited an external review, called the Putnam Report, in 1996 that expressed concerns about students getting a sufficient background in how government works. Slaughter's recent address discussed how the Wilson School has responded to the Putnam Report, introducing new workshops and requirements for graduate students.
The family points to a critical 1996 memo by Paul Volker, the former Federal Reserve chair and visiting Wilson School professor.
Volker commended the 180-person undergraduate Wilson School program, but said: "The graduate program is something else — frankly something of an intellectual hodgepodge despite all the resources committed, without clear focus or professional mission. It has almost no faculty that it can call its own."
Nobody has been able to show, however, whether President Emeritus Shapiro or President Tilghman got a copy of that memo.
Next to the president's office at One Nassau Hall is Wright's office. Perhaps the person most familiar with the past 25 years of the Foundation, he will be a significant focus of future deliberations.
He stands by his views. "The Robertson Foundation cannot achieve its objectives — and thrive — unless the University does the same. And vice versa," he said.
The two sides may find some common ground at the mediation, expected to begin later this year at the judge's request. But it will take effort.
"You hate to say never," said Rice, the Robertson lawyer. "It would take a radical attitude change."
On both sides.
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