Robertson/Princeton Case Heads to Court
On October 25, a New Jersey superior court justice ruled that the longstanding dispute between Princeton University and a family of prominent donors be sent to trial. In a series of seven rulings spanning 355 pages, Judge Neil H. Shuster left open the possibility that Princeton may have to forfeit $880 million—roughly six percent of its total endowment—in what is widely acknowledged as a landmark case involving donor intent.
Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, Marie Robertson, an heiress to the A&P Supermarket fortune, and her husband Charles created the Robertson Foundation in 1961 as a “supporting organization” for Princeton University. Originally endowed with $35 million worth of A&P stock, the foundation was established with the intent of helping Princeton prepare students for service in the federal government, particularly in diplomacy and international relations, through Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
The children of Marie and Charles Robertson charge Princeton with failing to place a significant number of graduates in foreign policy positions, especially compared to schools with smaller budgets and less focused programs. They also accuse Princeton of diverting $200 million to activities and resources unrelated to the foundation’s mission.
The court sided with the family on one crucial point. Judge Shuster wrote that a grantee has fiduciary duties “of care, loyalty and good faith” to the donor. But the court also agreed with Princeton, finding that the Robertson Foundation was authorized to spend realized capital gains as well as other income. It also denied the Robertsons’ motion for a jury trial.
A number of issues await resolution at a trial expected to begin next year, not least of which is the ultimate disposition of the donation. In the meantime, both sides have expressed confidence that they will be able to prove their case in court.
“Even if things stopped right now, this is a huge victory for donors everywhere,” Ronald H. Malone, the lead lawyer for the Robertson family, told the New York Times. “It shows that no matter how high and mighty a university might be, the law imposes on them a moral and legal obligation to use the money only for the purpose to which it was given.”
Google Lunar X Prize
Google has pledged $30 million to the X Prize Foundation to establish the Google Lunar X Prize, a private competition to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon. The first team to build a vehicle that can roam the lunar surface and send a “Mooncast” back to earth by 2012 will win the grand prize of $20 million. Teams are also eligible for a $5 million second place prize, as well as $5 million in bonuses for completing additional mission tasks.
The X Prize Foundation uses incentive prizes to catalyze technological breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. In 2004, the foundation made headlines when it paid out the largest award purse in history. Mojave Aerospace Ventures won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for being the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface twice within two weeks.
X Prize founder Peter H. Diamandis hopes the Google Lunar X Prize will “usher in an era of commercial exploration and development, in which small companies, groups of individuals and universities can build, launch, and explore the moon and beyond.”
“The use of space has dramatically enhanced the quality of life and may ultimately lead to solutions to some of the most pressing environmental problems that we face on earth—energy independence and climate change,” says Diamandis.
The foundation also hopes the prize will spur the search for natural resources on the moon. Gaining access to lunar resources would be a crucial advance towards future deep-space travel. Currently, transporting material into space is stratospherically expensive. Lunar-extracted resources could significantly reduce some of the costs of space travel. According to John Marburger, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, lunar-extracted oxygen, for instance, could be a particularly valuable element for the production of rocket fuel for propellants and large construction projects—including Mars exploration.
The competition intends to generate a private-sector model for space exploration. The current system, according to Stanford University’s Roger Blandford, is undermined by arbitrary budget allocations that are largely driven by public relations. The result, says physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg, is an exorbitantly expensive—and thus far scientifically insignificant—manned spaceflight program.
The X Prize Foundation is also sponsoring the Automotive X Prize (for the first team to design a super-efficient, mass-producible car model) and the Archon X Prize for Genomics (for the first team to sequence 100 human genomes in ten days).
One Laptop Per Child
The Massachusetts-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC) is using the power of the North American market to increase children’s ownership of computers throughout the developing world. For $399, an American buyer purchases an XO laptop for herself—and subsidizes the purchase of a laptop for a needy child. The “Give 1 Get 1” campaign is an effort to improve education for elementary students in poor countries, as well as to raise awareness for OLPC’s global laptop initiative.
OLPC’s efforts complement the work of corporate partner Advanced Micro Devices, which has a goal of enabling affordable internet access and computing capabilities for half the world’s population by the year 2015. Other organizations supporting OLPC include Google, Quanta, News Corporation, SES Global, Intel, eBay, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. T-Mobile USA is providing Give 1 Get 1 donors one free year of internet access. Video-game maker Electronic Arts is providing all OLPC laptops with its city-building simulation game SimCity.
With a battery that lasts over 12 hours, the XO laptop runs on very low power and can be recharged by hand-cranks, pull-cords, and solar power. The screen is readable in both bright daylight and grayscale reflective mode. Every computer has built-in wireless internet capabilities and either connects to a “mesh network” or picks up neighbors’ signals to get online. The laptops are very durable and resistant to water, dust, sand, and dirt. Perhaps most importantly, they are programmed in the local languages of their destinations and designed for illiterate users to comprehend.
Founder and chairman Nicholas Negroponte explains OLPC’s rationale to Laptop Magazine: “There are 1.2 billion children in primary and secondary schools worldwide. Fifty percent of those schools have no electricity, and many are so rural they hold class under a tree. Many teachers do not show up, or have barely a sixth-grade education themselves. Under these conditions, while we build schools and train teachers (a 20- to 30-year process), let’s leverage the children themselves, inside and outside of the school.”
Governments in the developing world currently can purchase the laptops for $175 per unit, and OLPC hopes that efficiency gains from mass production will lower the price to $100 per laptop within three years. About 7,000 prototypes have been delivered to schools in Cambodia, Thailand, India, Rwanda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Peru, Uruguay, and the United States. Production of the first series of 40,000 computers began in October. November saw the first official shipments to countries in South America and Africa.
OLPC lets the purchasing governments decide how to allocate and regulate ownership of the laptops. The foundation does, however, require that governments abide by its five core principles. Children are to own the laptops. The computers are to be designed for elementary school children. There should be digital saturation in distribution areas, connectivity should be as ubiquitous as possible, and the operating code should be from a free and open source.
The group is also raising funds to underwrite the cost of distributing laptops to children in exceptional situations, such as for children in refugee camps or remote isolation.