University to Reimburse Funds Used to Finance Three-Year Grad Program

Matthew Hersh

Princeton University announced Monday that nearly $800,000 used to fund a Woodrow Wilson School trial program would be returned to the foundation that supported it. Headed by the Robertson family, it has been involved in a multi-year suit charging the University with misappropriation of foundation funds.

The returned cash, which had been used to partially finance the Graduate Funding Agreement, a three-year trial program within the Wilson School that had academic ties to departments outside the school, is, according to a University statement, related to the "inadequate disclosure of the agreement to the foundation board," rather than an outright admission of "reservations about the appropriateness of the agreement."

Those monies had been cited in pre-trial motions by the Robertson family, heirs to the A&P fortune, whose original 1961 $35 million endowment is now worth upwards of $800 million.

The University has been quick to indicate that while those funds should have been immediately disclosed, the original GFA funding was basically an error. In March 2006, the University filed briefs with Superior Court Judge Neil H. Shuster indicating that $782,375 of GFA funding did not stem from the Robertson Foundation, which had been launched by the $35 million gift by Charles and Marie Robertson. The foundation was established to encourage students to pursue careers in public office and to create academic programming that reflected that mission.

As the result of what has been described as a bookkeeping error, GFA was funded with Robertson monies, despite its connections outside the Wilson School. The funding occurred because the GFA program was part of the Wilson School, and as such, was supported by the Robertson Foundation.

However, according to University records, more than $3.1 million of University financial support outside the Robertson Foundation was used to finance the fellowship. In a June 2006 letter to Judge Shuster, PU attorney Douglas Eakeley argued "we find that non-Robertson Foundation sources funded a large portion of Woodrow Wilson School fellowship costs during the years that the GFA was in effect." GFA was in operation for three years ending in fiscal 2002, Mr. Eakeley wrote.

But lead plaintiff Bill Robertson, son of Charles and Marie, along with plaintiffs Robert Halligan, Katherine Ernst, and Anne Meier, charge the University with using foundation funds as a school "piggy bank," according to a Robertson family Web site, as well as with using more than $200 million of foundation monies for items unrelated to the foundation's mission of academic emphasis on government service, particularly in the public sector.

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