Princeton, foundation settle suit over training future government leaders

Princeton University and a foundation that set up a fund worth hundreds of millions of dollars to support the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs have reached a settlement that ends a long-running dispute over the school's efforts to prepare students for government service.

The settlement dissolves a foundation set up in 1961 to oversee funds provided to the school. It also establishes a new foundation, funded at $50 million, aimed specifically at preparing students to serve in government.

The foundation created in 1961 was funded via a $35 million gift from Charles and Marie Robertson to Princeton. A document setting up the foundation declared that the intent of the gift was to support a graduate school "where men and women dedicated to public service may prepare themselves for careers in government service, with particular emphasis on the education of such persons for careers in those areas of the federal government that are concerned with international relations and affairs."

Over the decades, the initial gift was invested to support a fund that swelled to hundreds of millions of dollars. But the Robertsons' heirs became disenchanted with the way the money was being used, particularly after Princeton moved in 2002 to set up a new structure to oversee the foundation's investments. In July 2002, the Robertsons filed a lawsuit seeking to gain control of the funds.

Princeton, family members charged, had failed to fulfill its obligation under the gift to train future federal leaders. Between 1990 and 2003, they said, the university spent almost $200 million of foundation funds, but placed only 86 out of 885 masters of public affairs graduates in first jobs in the federal government in the area of international relations.

University officials said Princeton is among the leading public affairs schools in the country in placing graduate students in first jobs in government and the nonprofit sector. Many students who do not go directly into government go on to federal service later in their careers, they said.

Under the settlement, Princeton will remain in control of the Robertson Foundation funds. But the university will reimburse the Robertson family $40 million for legal expenses and direct $50 million over seven years to the new foundation to support efforts to prepare students to work in government.

"It is tragic that this lawsuit required the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars in legal fees that could have and should have been spent on educational and charitable purposes," said Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman. "We agreed to this settlement so that we could bring the rapidly escalating legal expenses to a halt before a lengthy trial added even more tens of millions of dollars."

William Robertson, the lead plaintiff in the case and the son of Charles and Marie Robertson, said, "For many decades, university officials refused to honor their commitment to my parents, thereby dooming a powerful and patriotic program." He said the new foundation mandated under the settlement "will carry out my parents' dream of helping our country by preparing America's best and brightest students for government careers with an emphasis on federal jobs in international relations and affairs."

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