In­vent­ing a dif­fer­ent mean­ing for the in­tent of a donor

Uni­ver­si­ties have an obli­ga­tion to honor the wishes of the gen­er­ous givers of the gifts

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion - By Ter­rence Scan­lon

If he were still alive, the Czech com­poser Leos Janacek might have been able to squeeze at least an act or two out of a bit­ter land dis­pute now roil­ing Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity. Janacek’s “The Makrop­u­los Af­fair” is a three-act opera that de­tails an in­ter­gen­er­a­tional pro­bate fight — a bit­ter dis­pute over what an an­ces­tor wanted done with his money — that con­sumes those par­tic­i­pat­ing in it.

Johns Hop­kins is now in­volved in a law­suit that be­gan inch­ing its way through Mary­land’s courts in Septem­ber. The pro­ceed­ings prom­ise to stretch out quite awhile. A de­ceased donor’s sur­viv­ing rel­a­tives claim that Johns Hop­kins is try­ing to run roughshod over her ex­press in­tent when she be­queathed her for­tune to the school.

When El­iz­a­beth Beall Banks, now dead, sold her Bel­ward Farm prop­erty in Mont­gomery County to Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity, she wanted the pic­turesque farm to be pre­served. The farm had be­longed to her fam­ily for more than a cen­tury.

So in 1989, Miss Banks at­tached strings to the sale. She let the univer­sity have the land for a mere $5 mil­lion — less than one­tenth of the es­ti­mated mar­ket value at that time of $54 mil­lion. Con­di­tions ap­plied, though. Miss Banks stip­u­lated that she was will­ing to al­low the univer­sity to de­velop 30 acres and the re­main­ing 108 acres were to be used for lim­ited pur­poses, in­clud­ing re­search and de­vel­op­ment.

Miss Banks wanted a min­i­mally in­tru­sive aca­demic or med­i­cal cam­pus con­structed on the farm and was will­ing to ac­cept a lower price in ex­change for Johns Hop­kins’ prom­ise to honor th­ese re­stric­tions. A de­vel­op­ment agree­ment stip­u­lated that the land could be used only for “agri­cul­tural, aca­demic, re­search and de­vel­op­ment, de­liv­ery of health and med­i­cal care and ser­vices, or re­lated pur­poses only, which uses may specif­i­cally in­clude but not be lim­ited to the de­vel­op­ment of a re­search cam­pus in af­fil­i­a­tion with one or more of the di­vi­sions of the Gran­tee.”

Miss Banks died in 2005 at age 94. In the time since, clever Johns Hop­kins lawyers have in­ter­preted the lan­guage broadly, find­ing ways to drive a truck through what­ever loop­holes they can concoct. The univer­sity is now part­ner­ing with Mont­gomery County busi­nesses to cre­ate a mas­sive $10 bil­lion biotech “sci­ence city” around the site.

Would Miss Banks ap­prove of the mas­sive project? Based on the terms ac­com­pa­ny­ing her gift, it is doubt­ful. Ac­cord­ing to her sup­port­ers, univer­sity of­fi­cials were aware of her in­ten­tions for the prop­erty. Of­fi­cials be­friended her and worked with her to make sure she was com­fort­able with the trans­ac­tion.

In 1997, Johns Hop­kins drafted plans for a 1.7 mil­lion-square-foot, lowrise aca­demic or med­i­cal cam­pus that re­port­edly sat­is­fied Miss Banks. The univer­sity agreed to the deal but held off on de­vel­op­ment.

It was only af­ter Miss Banks died that the school pro­posed a 4.6 mil­lionto 6.5 mil­lion-square-foot com­mer­cial com­plex for up to 20,000 peo­ple in build­ings as high as 150 feet, ri­val­ing the Biopo­lis in Sin­ga­pore. How­ever, Miss Banks’ obituary made it clear that she had al­ways fa­vored a more mod­est course of de­vel­op­ment for the farm: “Her love of the land led Ms. Banks and her fam­ily to sell Bel­ward Farm at a gift price to Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity to en­sure its de­vel­op­ment as a cam­pus in­stead of a hous­ing or com­mer­cial com­plex.” Johns Hop­kins agreed to the terms.

If the “sci­ence city” project goes ahead, it will be built on a Civil War­era farm lo­cated five miles from the clos­est Metro­rail sta­tion. Miss Banks’ de­scen­dants are not happy about the shoddy treat­ment they have re­ceived from Johns Hop­kins. On Nov. 10, 2011, they filed a law­suit against the univer­sity in an ef­fort to com­pel it to honor her donor in­tent. The idea that donors should have a say in how their be­quests are used is well es­tab­lished among our na­tion’s laws. Gov­ern­ments should not in­ter­vene to dis­honor donor in­tent un­less a be­quest is im­moral, un­law­ful, ren­dered ob­so­lete or im­pos­si­ble to at­tain. When dis­putes arise, pro­bate courts should hand down de­ci­sions that come as close as pos­si­ble to hon­or­ing donor in­tent.

Johns Hop­kins has also been in the news be­cause New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg gave $350 mil­lion to the univer­sity, his alma mater, in 2013, mak­ing it the largest gift to an in­sti­tu­tion of higher learn­ing to date this year. In­clud­ing the lat­est dona­tion, Mr. Bloomberg has given $1 bil­lion to the school dur­ing his life­time. He wants his funds to be used to fo­cus on global health is­sues and so­called eco­nomic sus­tain­abil­ity.

While some peo­ple, es­pe­cially con­ser­va­tives, may not like Mr. Bloomberg’s pol­i­tics and world­view, they can find some com­fort in the fact that his in­tent as a donor is likely to be re­spected by Johns Hop­kins af­ter he leaves this earth.

ILLUSTRATION BY GREG GROESCH

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