Donor wants $5.3 million gift returned after Facebook scandal
An irate donor to the University of Mississippi is trying to claw back millions of dollars in donations to his alma mater after Ole Miss stripped his name from its journalism school over 2018 Facebook posts by the donor.
Ed Meek, a Tupelo businessman who spent years working at Ole Miss’ public relations department, gave the school $5.3 million in 2009. With interest, that gift has reportedly climbed to $6.4 million.
Mr. Meek’s move, while of a smaller scale, follows other high-profile donors who have sought to take back millions in contributions because they argued the universities had used the money for other purposes. It also moves into the spotlight the tensions that can arise between universities and their patrons, experts said.
“You have to be savvy and anticipate this kind of situation,” said Doug White, author of several books that examine charity giving and in particular big donations to colleges.
Increasingly, clauses are being added to big gifts that give the school leeway should the donor subsequently disgrace himself, while donors have begun to seek more clearly written agreements to spend the money as intended.
So far, however, donors remain the more unprotected party, according to Mr. White and some others.
“Not enough has changed over the years, and the schools should be better stewards of the gifts,” he said.
Mr. Meek, who has since declined to comment on the matter, told a Mississippi outlet Sept. 20 that he still “loves Ole Miss,” and it was his suggestion that the school remove his name from its journalism school this year.
Nevertheless, he said he has been treated “very unfairly” by university administrators and students who allowed him to be “roundly labeled as a racist.”
During a long debate over underage drinking in Oxford last summer, Mr. Meek posted a picture of two black women Ole Miss students who said they were coming from a football game. Women at Ole Miss, especially sorority members, are famous for dressing in glamorous outfits for home games.
The students said they felt demeaned by the photos in Mr. Meek’s post.
Spokespeople at Ole Miss did not respond to questions.
It is unclear who, exactly, has the money, a factor Mr. White said will likely prove crucial in the coming weeks. Mr. Meek made his request in county chancery court.
The dissatisfaction Mr. Meek has with his alma mater is reminiscent of incidents in which the Bass and Robertson families sought the return of millions from Yale and Princeton universities, respectively, because the schools used the money for purposes other than what the gift intended.
The Bass family, a rich Texas group whose members have attended Yale for decades, sought the return of $20 million in 1995 it had given for the school to establish a scholarly center devoted to Western civilization.
Today, $20 million is a drop in Yale’s nearly $30 billion endowment, but the school did return the gift in an era in which The Los Angeles Times wrote, “even the Ivy League is counting pennies.”
Similarly, Princeton University, whose 2019 endowment is estimated at $25.4 billion, settled out of court with the Robertson family in 2009 after the A&P grocery empire heirs sought the return of a $35 million gift intended to put the school’s then-named Woodrow Wilson School for Public Policy and International Affairs on sound financial footing.
Both sides claimed some sort of victory in that case, in which Princeton agreed to pay legal fees of about $90 million.
Last year, the Pearson Family Members Foundation went to court seeking to recoup $22 million of a $100 million gift made to the University of Chicago made in 2015 because they say the school didn’t use the money for what it was intended.
The cases have made donors wary, particularly conservative alumni who often find themselves at odds with current campus climates, but few concrete changes seem to have occurred, experts said.
“It’s one of those things impossible to measure because no one tracks dollars not given,” said Peter Wood, president of the conservative National Association of Scholars. “Considering the size of some of these endowments, most of the schools now are able to shrug it off anyway, and thus they are, unfortunately, impervious to most forms of public criticism.”
The National Association of Scholars has seen a steady increase in donations and Mr. Wood believes, but said he has no way of proving, that in some cases the money might otherwise have gone directly to schools.
Yet while all nonprofits offer the same tax break — and in Mr. Meek’s case, he has announced he hopes to give the $6.4 million to the CREATE Foundation, a Mississippi-based charity — not many carry the prestige that can accompany a well-publicized, major university donation, Mr. Wood said.
“It’s hard to fathom what’s going through the minds of these people giving schools enormous gifts, and in the circles in which I travel stopping it is a constant source of chatter,” Mr. Wood said. “But outside of some disaffected alumni at some places, I’d be hard pressed to cite an opposition to it that’s been especially effective.”