Amy Matthers [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

June 10, 2019; Washington Post, NPR, and

The University of Alabama did not take Hugh Culverhouse Jr.’s name off their School of Law sign quietly in the middle of the night. They did it in broad daylight on Friday, June 7th , in a ceremony recorded in a broadly circulated photo of two workmen removing the letters. The message was clear: They were severing their relationship with Culverhouse and returning the first part of the $26 million gift that put his name up there in the first place. The whole incident quickly turned into a high-profile, media-enhanced blame game.

Culverhouse tied the return of his contribution to his vocal objection to the recent Alabama law against abortions of any kind. On May 29th, he said students and national and international firms should boycott the law school. The next week, Culverhouse wrote an eloquent and efficacious op-ed where he said his father was an alum of the school, a successful lawyer, and an officer at Planned Parenthood in Miami. Culverhouse himself is a supporter of women’s right to bodily sovereignty.

On the very day the op-ed was published, the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees approved a motion to return the Culverhouse money that had already been received, $21.5 million of the pledge of $26 million. The wire transfer was processed a short time later. Kellee Reinhart, a spokesperson for the university system, released a statement the same day that the decision “was a direct result of Mr. Culverhouse’s ongoing attempts to interfere in the operations of the Law School…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.”

The University of Alabama followed up with the release of emails between Culverhouse and members of the administration of the law school. (The timeline does not agree with Culverhouse’s op-ed, and Culverhouse says the emails are “not genuine.”) In the emails, if they are legitimate, Culverhouse points out that the U. of Alabama business school did not receive $16 million from his father’s estate until they met his terms, after two years of litigation. He goes on to make demands on who they hire for faculty, stating that one was his “endowed professorship.” He wanted a renowned Constitutional Law Professor, and he had opinions on whether or not the dean would remain and on how many students would be enrolled, with a look towards increasing class size. Culverhouse wanted the ability to wander into a classroom of his choice, unannounced. On May 24th, five days before he asked for the student boycott, he asked that $10 million be returned to him.

Whatever the truth may be, the lesson here is that nonprofits must think seriously about accepting money from demanding donors with unreasonable conditions on their gifts. Gift policies are growing ever more critical, as even smaller organizations face the question of whether to take or return a gift more and more often.

In this case, Alabama system chancellor Finis E. St. John IV emphasizes that donors should not write policy:

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.

In an internal email, the dean, Mark Brandon, stated that Culverhouse “misunderstands the mission and fiscal logic of a university, the environment in which the Law School operates, the nature of decision making in a public academic institution, and relationship between the School of Law and the University.” He added that they would “be in trouble with accrediting bodies—and vulnerable in the various courts of public opinion—if we are ceding responsibility for choosing chair-holders (or any tenure-line faculty) to non-academics.”

The dean lays it out clearly that the type of pressure they were getting with that particular donation was against policy, would threaten the community’s perception of the school, and would threaten their accreditation. At that, the decision becomes apparent. The president pro tem of the board of trustees, Ronald Gray, confirms that in his statement: “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.”

Culverhouse dismissed the notion there were other reasons for the return of the gift, saying, “What comes out is an irony that a law school would not recognize a person’s First Amendment rights.” In the emails, he stated he removed the university from his will. “That bridge is gone,” he said of the University of Alabama. “They burned it.”

Culverhouse is right to oppose Alabama’s abortion law. Nevertheless, sometimes the donor is wrong.—Marian Conway