University Of Alabama Releases Emails Regarding Donor's Rejected Gift

Jun 10, 2019
Originally published on June 11, 2019 9:52 am

The University of Alabama has released a series of internal emails regarding mega-donor Hugh Culverhouse Jr., saying the documents back the university's contention that its rejection of Culverhouse's $21.5 million gift had nothing to do with his stance against Alabama's strict abortion law. Culverhouse had also called for prospective students to boycott the university.

"Our decision was never about the issue of abortion," the university said as it released emails that are from, to and about Culverhouse. Instead, the university said, the decision was "about ending the continued outside interference by the donor."

In response to the university's release of the email records, Culverhouse said he's glad they emerged — and he contends that the emails back his claim that the university disagreed with his political stance.

Culverhouse had pledged to donate a total of $26.5 million over four years. He had already paid all but $5 million of that sum, but the university sent his money back on Friday, with the university's president, Stuart Bell, saying, "This decision was made for reasons of academic and institutional integrity."

The earliest email released by the university dates from May 17; the latest was sent on June 3. They provide new details about a lingering and convoluted dispute:

  • May 24: Culverhouse asks for $10 million to be returned.
  • May 25: In an internal email, University of Alabama System Chancellor Fess St. John says the university should return Culverhouse's donation in full and remove his name from the law school.
  • May 29: Culverhouse calls for students to boycott the University of Alabama, citing the state's new abortion law.
  • May 29: Several hours after the boycott call, the school reveals its plan to return the donor's money.
  • June 7: The university's board of trustees votes to return Culverhouse's donation.

In Culverhouse's view, the university rejected his record donation "as retaliation for calling on students to reconsider attending a university that advocates a state law that discriminates against women and is unconstitutional."

University of Alabama officials accuse Culverhouse of trying to interfere in its operations, from the hiring and firing of law professors to student admission strategies. The university says it's for those reasons, not Culverhouse's views about the state's controversial abortion law, that it decided to give Culverhouse his money back last Friday.

Culverhouse, a Florida attorney and businessman, acknowledges that the disputes outlined in the newly released emails are unrelated to the abortion issue. But, he states, "Following the anti-abortion law — and with Gov. Kay Ivey being a member of the board of trustees of the University of Alabama — I am compelled to take a stand and call for a boycott, especially since my father was an officer of Planned Parenthood."

Culverhouse says he never sought the return of all the money he donated to the university and its law school. And he adds that he didn't learn about the university's plan to return his entire donation until after he called for a boycott of the school.

As member station WBHM reported last week, "Culverhouse says he was stunned by the university's stand, but he added, 'You probably shouldn't put a living person's name on a building, because at some point they might get fed up and start talking.' "

Until last week, Culverhouse was the University of Alabama's largest donor, carrying on the legacy of his late father, an Alabama alum and the former owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But the university stripped the younger Culverhouse's name off its law school last Friday, after the board of trustees voted to return his most recent donation.

The move came after weeks of testy emails between Culverhouse and the leaders of the university and its law school, including one in which he demanded the $10 million be returned.

"You seem to think the quid pro quo is I give you the largest sum and commitment in the school's history and you have no return consideration as your end of the transaction. 'Thanks for the money — Good-Bye,' " Culverhouse wrote to Bell, the university's president, on May 25. "You just were not prepared. So process the return of the payments ($10MM) made in advance. And, if you want to tell the board of regents for the state, fine."

In the emails, Culverhouse cites his earlier successes in helping the university's business school and the women's golf team. And he repeatedly says he wants to help the law school succeed. He also makes it clear that he has ideas about how that can happen. In one instance, he recommends adjusting teacher-student ratios; in another, he criticizes the field of candidates for a constitutional law professorship he funded, calling the roster "a joke."

Citing his experience with the business school, Culverhouse said in an email to law school dean Mark Brandon that he expects the law school to consult him on big choices. That's what the business school did when it received a large donation from his father's estate.

"I would ask you to include me as I am the biggest donor and I have a certain set of skills that can help," Culverhouse wrote.

For his part, Brandon balked at what he described as Culverhouse's attempts to interfere with staffing at the law school and the donor's desire to "have free rein to wander into classrooms."

Brandon said that such visits should happen only with a professor's consent. In explaining his resistance, the dean noted concerns about academic freedom. He also said that Culverhouse had advised him to fire 10 professors, adding "I do not want my faculty subjected to the scrutiny of someone who may be motivated by a desire to get rid of them."

The emails show that on May 24, when Culverhouse initially asked the university to return $10 million he had donated, the request surprised Bell, who replied in part, "I believed we had a good conversation yesterday and a good plan to move forward."

But by then, the relationship between the university and its biggest donor was teetering on the edge. Earlier on the 24th, Culverhouse had sent a scathing email to Brandon in which he said he wouldn't be giving any more money to Alabama, adding, "yesterday, I removed Alabama as a beneficiary from my will/trust. That amount makes a mockery of the sums I have given. It is gone."

When Brandon wrote back to apologize and suggest a time to talk, Culverhouse replied, "Mark — at this point conversations are not worth the time."

As Culverhouse noted in an earlier email, the institution's business school is named for his father, Hugh Culverhouse Sr. — the result, as the younger Culverhouse mentioned, of a protracted disagreement involving multiple lawsuits that were settled in 1998. His father's $16 million donation was the single largest cash gift the university had ever received as of that time, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

"The school did not get $16MM from my father's estate except when they agreed to my terms after 2 years of litigating," Culverhouse wrote on Friday, May 17.

But the university's emails suggest that the law school's leaders were not inclined to agree to Culverhouse's terms about the law school donation.

"We need to do this immediately because it will only get worse," Chancellor St. John said on May 25 as the university's core leaders agreed that they should return Culverhouse's donation in full and remove his name from the law school.

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