The Tulane University outcome is probably the proper one — the university is allowed to dismantle its women’s college, Sophie Newcomb, even though the original gift was to create a women’s college affiliated with Tulane. Josephine Newcomb funded the college more than 100 years ago, and the dead hand of the past should not become an infinite weight.
But the story is a good reminder to donors that universities are not necessarily going to do what donors want — donors should make ironclad agreements if their gifts are going to be for the long term.
The comment Inside Higher Ed quoted from Tulane’s brief is chilling: “Precatory language [as Newcomb’s was determined to be] often serves the time-honored role of permitting a donor to express his or her motivations or desires for a gift without hindering the recipient’s discretion and ability to achieve its mission in a constantly evolving environment,” the brief said.
“Time-honored role” of letting the university do what it wants? Indeed, universities sometimes distort the donor’s purpose right under his or her nose, as I wrote about in 2009.