Donor Intent Watch: Higher Education Update 

Legislators and others often ask us if donor intent violations are “real problems” or simply infrequent misunderstandings. Our answer is clear—they are indeed serious problems in philanthropy, and they occur more frequently than the general public might suspect. Following the passage of the Donor Intent Protection Act in Kansas, Philanthropy Roundtable is launching a monthly update on donor intent controversies around the country to inform the donor community, charitable organizations, public officials and anyone else interested in the preservation of donor intent. For additional resources on donor intent, please visit the Roundtable’s Donor Intent Hub.

Our first update involves three higher education institutions.

Dartmouth College

Several years before his death, Dartmouth alumnus Robert T. Keeler made Dartmouth College one of the beneficiaries in his will by leaving a percentage of his estate to his alma mater. He was clear that any funds received were to be used for the “sole purpose of upgrading and maintaining its golf course.” In a 2005 agreement, the college was advised that any funds not used for that purpose were to be returned to Keeler’s charitable foundation.

In mid-2020, Dartmouth announced that for financial reasons, it was closing the golf course but has not yet returned the remaining balance–approximately $3.8 million—to the foundation. The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Charitable Trusts Unit determined that because the course was closed for financial reasons, Dartmouth would be allowed to keep the funds and use them for “golf-related” purposes, including financial support of the men’s and women’s varsity golf teams. A circuit court agreed, and the case is now before the Vermont Supreme Court.

Read more here.

Middlebury College

In 1914, in honor of the 50th anniversary of his graduation, former Vermont Gov. John Abner Mead offered a sizeable gift to his alma mater to build a chapel on the Middlebury campus. By the time the chapel was completed in 1916, Mead’s gift totaled $75,000 (over $2 million in today’s dollars). In the fall of 2021, Middlebury College officials announced they had removed Mead’s name from the campus chapel because of his support for eugenics policies in the early 1900s. Another former governor and Middlebury alumnus, Jim Douglas, is now representing the Mead Family and has filed a breach of contract suit against the college.

Middlebury has claimed the Mead Memorial Chapel—which over time has become the iconic representation of the college—was named in honor of John Mead and his wife. Douglas included a copy of Mead’s original gift letter in the complaint he filed with the Vermont Superior Court on March 24, and that document indicates Mead’s naming intention was, in fact, to honor his ancestors. It is not clear how much the suit will revolve around the gift letter and what role John Mead’s early involvement in Vermont’s eugenics movement will play.

Read more here.

Valparaiso University

In Indiana, Richard Brauer, the founding director of Valparaiso University’s art museum (now named the Brauer Museum of Art) and Philipp Brockington, an emeritus professor and benefactor of the museum’s collection, are suing the institution, its president and the state’s attorney general to stop the planned sale of three paintings. Valparaiso President Jose D. Padilla announced in February that the proceeds of the sale—estimated at $20 million—would be used to upgrade freshman dormitories to include “the amenities desired by incoming students and their families.”

The paintings in question include “Rust Red Hills” by Georgia O’Keeffe (1930), “Mountain Landscape” by the Hudson River School’s Frederic E. Church (1865) and “The Silver Veil and the Golden Gate” by American impressionist Childe Hassam (1914). All three acquisitions were funded by Percy H. Sloan through a trust he established in 1945 that contained 400 paintings and nearly $200,000 in cash. The work by Church was included in the estate transfer; the O’Keefe and Hassam paintings were purchased by Richard Brauer in his role as museum director with funds from Sloan’s trust. According to Brauer, the trust agreement contains no reference to a deaccessioning policy, and a number of national museum organizations including the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums oppose the proposed sale, as does Valparaiso’s faculty senate.

This case offers an interesting question about legal standing, which is frequently a barrier in donor intent lawsuits. Neither of the plaintiffs is related to Percy Sloan, but their attorney, Patrick B. McEuen, claims that because Valparaiso’s art museum bears his name, Brauer has a “reputational stake” and therefore “common law standing” in the litigation.

Read more here and here.

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