PERSPECTIVES: When Collegiate Philanthropy Hits a Wall

A source reports that collegiate philanthropy was up nearly 13% year-to-year, the most significant increase in two decades. That money comes to higher ed. The situation at the University of Richmond may result in a substantial donation being returned.       

Some years ago, my wife and I attended a small Brethren Church in the Shenandoah Valley. When the congregation wanted to build a new, larger sanctuary and remodel the fellowship hall, I chaired the committee for the project. The experience was enjoyable, and I was reminded more than once of the brethren’s lesson concerning designated, named funds.

A few years before, I helped remodel the foyer of the old sanctuary, and I wanted to remove a small desk that had on it an engraved brass plate with a donor’s name and date. The pastor explained it had to remain when he said, “That’s the trouble with accepting a named gift–it stays around forever.” So, as we raised funds for the expansion, no monies would be designated, and no plaques with names would appear anywhere in the church.

Private organizations need to raise funds to thrive. Churches, private schools, and higher education institutions spend money to raise money. Many of them have entire departments dedicated to such an end. And, unlike the Brethren Church in the Valley, most schools of learning at any level will accept designated funds naming a building, field, or specific division after a donor.

A private liberal arts university in Virginia now faces a challenge after accepting funds (some designated), then removing the donor’s name from its law school. 

Robert C. Smith, a Richmond attorney who graduated from the T. C. Williams Law School at the University of Richmond, is the great-great-grandson of T. C. Williams, an early and generous donor to the university. Last year the university’s board changed the name to the University of  Richmond School of Law after its new policy concerning the naming of school entities began. Williams, a university graduate, was a wealthy 19th-century Richmond businessman who owned tobacco companies and slaves. Following his death, his family donated $25,000 to the law school.

But since he was an enslaver, his name was removed in 2022. So now, his descendant wants the family money returned.

According to the Washington Post, Smith writes that “T.C. Williams and three of his brothers all served in the Confederacy and ‘did their duty to protect their wives, children, homes and public institutions from a voracious and plundering invader.’” He believes the Williams family made the university possible through generous gifts across generations, mainly by T.C. Williams, Jr.

Still, since the university, by the name removal, has determined the family money to be tainted, he asks that it be returned. He values the family gifts at $3.6 billion. If the family money is so bad, Smith seems to reason; it is too bad to keep. So, on the principle of the thing, Smith thinks the university should return the money, which is an interesting view.

The Williams family donated money over the years, and the university accepted it whether it was designated or not. The university Board published its policy concerning naming university entities in March 2022. The ten-point policy explains what personal characteristics the university wishes to celebrate when it names a university entity and gives some examples, such as “… significant wrongdoing or misconduct may include a significant and material role in the promotion of segregation, eugenics, or other forms of discrimination based on a protected class, as legally defined, or conviction of a felony. for which it will not name anything.” The tenth point reads: “The University’s Board of Trustees retains final authority for decisions about namings, de-namings, and re-namings at the University.”

The Board policy does not state whether it would or would not accept a donation from such a person it deems not in line with the university’s principles. In other words, what if (for example) a known Christian Nationalist wrote a non-designated check to the university for a sizable amount, not naming an entity, took the money, and did as needed? Would the university accept the money or refuse it on principle? Even the best-endowed school benefits from every sized gift, but as Mark Twain revealed in his short story The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, at what price will principle be corrupted?

The University of Richmond Board’s March 2022 document concerning its policy on naming is a principled document, Because of those expressed principles, designated monies from the Williams family should be returned.

The pastor of that small Brethren church in the Valley taught me a proper lesson, and for the university to do anything less would be going against its principles.

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