Donor wants $5.3 mil­lion gift re­turned af­ter Face­book scan­dal

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY JAMES VARNEY

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.”

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