Why Alabama Returned the Gift

Newly released documents suggest that what has been portrayed as a dispute about the state law restricting abortion may be about a donor's demands over a law school.

June 10, 2019
 

It is highly unusual for colleges and universities to return multimillion-dollar gifts. It's also highly unusual for a major donor and alumnus to urge out-of-state students to stay away

But the decision to return millions by the University of Alabama, at first seen as the result of that boycott, may as well be about demands of the donor over the law school that was supported by his gift. Emails released by the university on Sunday show a series of communications between the donor and the university suggesting a highly contentious relationship in which some at the university were suggesting the return of the money before he called for the boycott.

For instance, one email from Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr., the donor, criticized candidates for a new professorship as inadequate and said that the law school dean was "a small-town, insecure" dean, adding that "the outside world frightens him."

Culverhouse has been seen nationally as being punished by the university for taking a principled stand against the state's new law that effectively bars abortion. But the university, in releasing these documents, suggests that the dispute is about it taking a stand against excessive donor influence.

Last week, Culverhouse called for out-of-state students to stay away from Alabama to protest the state's new law. On Friday the university's board voted to return the gift and to take the Culverhouse name off the law school.

In an essay in The Washington Post after the university decided to return his gift, Culverhouse questioned the decision. "I expected that speaking out would have consequences, but I never could have imagined the response from the University of Alabama, which on Friday said it would be returning my gift and removing my name from the law school," he wrote. "This decision will hurt future students. Less money will be available for scholarships, and there will be fewer resources for the school to use to educate young minds and help them grow."

Culverhouse added, "It has been painful to witness administrators at the university choose zealotry over the well-being of its own students, but it’s another example of the damage this attack on abortion rights will do to Alabama. The bill will not survive a court challenge, and likely will cost the state a great deal in court fees and other expenses that could be used to help its citizens. But for those who support it, that collateral damage doesn’t even merit a passing thought. Total victory must be achieved, even if it means running roughshod over people’s rights and harming students."

But a statement Alabama released Sunday, along with the various documents, offers a very different view.

"Our decision was never about the issue of abortion," the statement says. "It was always about ending the continued outside interference by the donor in the operations of the University of Alabama School of Law. As the attached emails factually establish, the donor attempted to influence student admissions, scholarship awards, the hiring and firing of faculty, and the employment status of the law school dean."

The statement adds that "the donor's continuing effort to rewrite history by injecting one of society's most emotional, divisive issues into this decision is especially hurtful."

The email messages clearly show university officials discussing the return of the money prior to Culverhouse's boycott call. The emails also show Culverhouse apparently proposing the idea that $10 million would be returned. (He said he paid it in advance of his pledge schedule.) In one email he wrote that the university was not prepared to accept and manage a gift of the size that he gave to Alabama. And Culverhouse criticized the university for not taking his views, as a donor, seriously.

"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 as your end of the transaction. 'Thanks for the money -- goodbye,'" he wrote.

In another email from Culverhouse to law school officials, released by the university, he said that he should be consulted on choices for law school dean, and he criticized the law school for having too many faculty members.

"I really don't care if the faculty likes, dislikes me," he wrote. "There are too many … You have a ratio of teacher/students that is ridiculous and you need to increase the student body or reduce teachers and support staff."

Culverhouse told Florida Politics that the emails released backed his version of events. He said that while the university was discussing the idea of returning funds to him, it took no action until after he called for a boycott by out-of-state students.

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