Ask Not . . .

Can a university be sued for failing to promote federal service?

In 1961, Charles and Marie Robertson, inspired by President Kennedy's call to public service, made a remarkable $35 million gift to Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. In a document setting up a foundation to manage the funds, the Robertsons made their intent very clear: "to strengthen the government of the United States . . . by improving the facilities for the training and education of men and women for government service," with special emphasis on foreign affairs.

Forty-five years later, the Robertson Foundation's fund has swelled to $650 million and represents a significant portion of Princeton's endowment. But the Robertsons' heirs aren't happy with the way the money is being spent. From 1973 to 2005, they note, only 12 percent of Wilson School graduates took their first jobs with Uncle Sam in foreign affairs. (Another 10 percent went to work for the federal government in other areas.)

In 2002, the Robertsons filed suit against Princeton in an effort to win control of the fund. The case-which has inched its way toward a courtroom showdown later this year-hinges on questions about management and how much control donors should have over their gifts. But it also highlights the gradual decline in the ability of educational institutions to encourage the "best and brightest" to go into federal service.

Almost since its creation, the Robertson Foundation faced a series of major impediments to meeting its goals. First came the Vietnam War, when students became disillusioned with U.S. foreign policy. Close on its heels was Watergate and the ensuing lack of trust in government. In 1980, Ronald Reagan became the first in a series of presidential candidates to win office at least in part by crusading against the bureaucracy.

The Wilson School would have needed steely resolve to succeed in promoting government careers under such circumstances. But the institution was in fact always ambivalent about the foundation's mission. The Wall Street Journal reported in February that in a 1972 memo to Princeton's president, John P. Lewis, then-dean of the Wilson School questioned "the unspoken premise that, with respect to any American institution dealing in public affairs, the highest per se loyalty automatically must be to the U.S. government."

Even today, a statement on the school's Web site highlights a broader agenda than training federal leaders. "Woodrow Wilson School graduates," it says, "pursue challenging careers as policymakers, administrators and managers in government at all levels and in nongovernmental organizations, multilateral organizations, foundations, policy and research institutes, and other organizations-both in the United States and abroad."

A current Princeton student, J.R. deLara, argued in the school's newspaper in February that the Robertson family's approach amounts to turning a prestigious institution into a vocational school. "I don't believe a Princeton education should be geared to any distinct end apart from an academic pursuit itself," deLara wrote.

Research has shown that today's graduates of schools of public administration and public affairs take a broad view of "public service," believing that work in nonprofit organizations, think tanks and even corporations can qualify. That's the problem, says William Robertson, the son of the original Princeton donors. "Working for McKinsey [and Co., a consulting firm] or CARE or any number of organizations which may service the public sector, to some extent, is not strengthening the government of the United States," he told U.S. News and World Report recently.

For years, schools of public affairs and public administration have struggled with a decline in the number of students who go on to work in government. Some, such as Harvard University's Kennedy School, have launched successful efforts to promote federal service. Princeton says the current dean, Anne-Marie Slaughter, has initiated a series of programs to place "even more Wilson School graduates in federal government service."

That's a tacit acknowledgment that the university has fallen short of meeting the Robertson Foundation's goals. Now, family members say, it's time to spread the money around to various institutions. If the Robertsons win control of the foundation's funds, a spokesperson says, their "sole mission will be to help plug the coming government brain drain by encouraging the nation's best and brightest graduate students to pursue federal government careers." Whether they'll get a chance to make good on that pledge will be up to a judge.

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