updated 11/27/2006 9:44:35 PM ET 2006-11-28T02:44:35

The children of a couple who in 1961 made one of the biggest donations in the history of academia to Princeton University say in a lawsuit closely watched by charities and conservative activists that the school is misusing the money and should give it back.

Lawyers for the Robertson family and the university were due in state Superior Court on Tuesday to start two days of legal arguments hashing out the parameters of a trial that is likely at least several months — and maybe years — away.

Among the seven legal motions to be argued are whether a judge or jury should decide the facts in a trial and whether Princeton should return more than $200 million the family claims was inappropriately used by the university.

The late Charles and Marie Robertson anonymously donated $35 million in 1961 to turn the graduate school at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs into a finishing school for United States government spies and diplomats.

A question of intent
The school is undeniably prestigious. After the Sept. 11 attacks, for instance, it helped train Afghan leaders in the workings of democracy and its impressive lineup of guest lecturers includes a speech scheduled for Tuesday by Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations.

But the number of government agents turned out by the school has been too low for the heirs of the Robertsons.

They sued in 2002 in one of the largest ever so-called "donor-intent" lawsuits. They say that because Princeton has not done what it was supposed to with the money, the university should give it back. The family says it would use the money — now worth more than $750 million — in other ways to support Charles and Marie Robertsons' goals.

While the lawsuit as a whole could reverberate throughout the nonprofit world, the arguments scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday are largely technical, delving into tax laws, complicated accounting formulas and the governance of the Princeton-controlled board that controls the Robertson Foundation and the relationship between that foundation and the university.

Princeton is seeking to be recognized as the sole beneficiary of the gift so the money could not be granted to other institutions.

The academic freedom argument
Letting the money be taken away would be a blow not only to Princeton, but to the freedom of universities to make their own decisions, according to the school.

"In essence, plaintiffs seek to violate the principle of academic freedom, substituting their judgment for that of the University as to how best to educate its students, recruit and retain faculty, design curriculum, sponsor research and promote an array of other activities," Douglas Eakeley, a lawyer for the university, said in a statement.

Seth Lapidow, a lawyer for the Robertsons, said his clients are especially concerned about Princeton's effort to have a judge rather than a jury decide the case.

"Princeton takes the position that this gift was made to Princeton University," Lapidow said. "The plaintiffs believe Princeton was just the instrumentality of the gift — and the gift was to the American public."

That, he said, is one reason the public should help judge the facts. The other is that juries are usually involved when it comes to awarding punitive damages, as his clients have requested.

Even if the judge rules against the family in every issue at this week's arguments, the case would go forward on the basis of fraud claims against Princeton, Lapidow said.

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