An interview with William S. Robertson ’72

William S. Robertson ’72 was the lead plaintiff in Robertson V. Princeton, a lawsuit filed against the University in July 2002 that challenged the spending of funds by a foundation created in 1961 to oversee a $35 million gift by his mother, A&P heiress Marie Robertson, to support the graduate program of the Woodrow Wilson School. The University and the Robertson family reached a settlement that received court approval Dec. 12, 2008. Robertson spoke with PAW the following week.

How do you view the case and the settlement?

We were not the aggressor. We acted in defense of the foundation and my parents’ goals and the need for great young people entering government service. It has been a long and costly struggle for both sides. Our intent was not in any way to weaken the University. And we tried to be careful to distinguish between the University’s actions and the actions taken by University administrations going back to 1961. The time for finger-pointing is past. We want to coexist with the University and see us both work to preserve and improve this great country for generations to come.

Among the many lessons learned in this case, at least on our side, was to hesitate before litigating such a matter in state court. And I have to say the New Jersey state court became an obstacle to our receiving justice at the end of the day. However, donors should continue to hope for and expect performance and cooperation from recipients, and we hope that this case has in some way contributed to that notion.

I feel that we need to respond regarding our use of the Banbury Fund, our family’s charitable foundation, in terms of having funded most of the expenses in this matter. My parents wrote a letter in 1972 specifically directing the directors of the Banbury Fund, which included my siblings and me at the time, to keep a special eye on the Woodrow Wilson School program and the Robertson Foundation in terms of watching carefully that the two adhere to the missions stated originally. Secondly, our firm in New York, a large and well-known firm, Milbank Tweed, specifically researched this matter in the beginning and gave us written authorization to use the Banbury Fund to pay these legal expenses. Thirdly, the judge in this case rejected Princeton’s attempts to curtail spending from the Banbury Fund. And so we feel no regret about acting precisely as we did. And in the end, the result brought about was a very, very worthy one.

The University has said that the case could have been settled earlier on terms very similar to actual settlement, but that your family rejected those terms. Is that the case?  

First of all, the settlement terms – previous offers from Princeton – were less attractive than the terms of this agreement. I think candidly, the complexity and the cost of the case grew almost geometrically in the past two years, and I think that both sides at the end of the day became really disillusioned with the legal process as the trial approached. It is fair to say that on our side, that was a significant cause, and I would submit to you that Princeton had a very similar feeling on their side.

If someone had said when suit was being filed that total legal fees could approach $80 million in this case, what would you have thought?

I would have rejected the idea instantly.

What finally brought the two sides together?

The last two years became considerably more difficult for us – not specifically financially, but in terms of the complexity and the pressures of the intricacies of bringing this matter to an end. I frankly shifted our focus from the litigators to Milbank Tweed in hopes they could act as a first-rate intermediary … As I said before, we do not have unlimited resources – and I think they also felt that Princeton really would prefer not to have all of this evidence drawn into the public eye. And so they immediately suggested contacting the other side, which we did, and we found that the University’s appetite to resolve this was very similar to ours, and from there it was just a matter of hammering out reasonable terms, which I think both sides have accomplished in these settlement talks.

Did you start out in this lawsuit feeling that the only resolution would be for the family to separate itself from the University?  

When we started out, we had two quite simple goals. One was to see the University at least partially relent on a total takeover of the foundation portfolio. There was no give on their part. There could have been very nicely, and we could have worked together on the investment committee, but that was not an option given to us. Secondly, the University simply transferred $22 million from the foundation for construction [on Wallace and Robertson halls] which had never been presented to it – a proposal had never been presented to the board, certainly was never approved by the board, and we were not even informed after the fact until the statement for the previous year was sent to me months later. Those two situations could have been rectified in a heartbeat.

No, it’s never been my family’s goal to separate from Princeton. Our understanding was that this was a permanent relationship, and that was our parents’ desire, and that was the end of it. But when actions taken become just intolerable and unacceptable, we had to find some sort of recourse, which unfortunately now we see the outcome of.

When did it appear that the differences between the two sides had become irreconcilable?  

Well, we felt mistreated from the beginning, but that was simply a preliminary feeling on our part. But there began the personal attacks in the press against my family, and we never attacked – not in a personal sense – any Princeton officials … Princeton’s legal team was obstructive in cooperating with discovery and providing documents which we were completely entitled to as board members, and then the evidence began to come out which was shocking in terms of the disregard for my parents’ wishes from the very beginning in 1961, which was very hard medicine to take for my family.  

And so we felt we had a strong case, and relations were deteriorating fast, and I think it just took on a life of its own. And it’s really a tragedy in many ways, and not the least of which is that whether we’ve benefited or not ultimately, I don’t Princeton has. I think that’s a hard argument to make. But of course the lawyers have had a tremendous windfall profit on this.

It almost sounds like the case took on a life of its own.  

I’ve learned that managing litigators is a very difficult task, and if I ever did this again, I will be sure that there is very sophisticated oversight. I had perhaps been a little too loose with our legal team.  

After the settlement, you had some positive comments about programs that Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 put in place at the school.  

I think she has faced an uphill battle in that there was already so much infrastructure/program/overhead in place. She did take some valuable initiatives – the Robertson Scholars clearly is a step in the right direction, she hired some extremely fine faculty early in her tenure as dean, and I think that there is a new level of interest in government and U.S. government service, whereas prior to that there was virtually none at all. We simply are hopeful that these funds will go toward these kinds of efforts and programs in the future, and there could be ways we could help each other going forward. We have no plans of speaking negatively about the situation in the future. We’ve had more than enough.

Can you talk about plans for your family’s new foundation?

We are going to have to target our efforts clearly more than we would have with greater funds. However, we’re going to work hard to realize my parents’ dream. We want to determine a precise profile for the student applicant for a graduate school of public affairs; I think that’s very important to become a leader, to become a devoted federal government professional. Of course, we would like to focus on federal service and encourage whichever schools are recipients of the program to focus in that area. In terms of placement, we would like to implement a real incentive program that will attract graduates into the U.S. government and hopefully keep them there, at least for a significant part of their career. And we would like to actually begin to work on way to improve the attractiveness of federal government service and to improve the retention of good people in our government. We will be reaching out to other foundations, other institutions to also take an interest in a program like that. So our platter will be full.

When do you plan to begin these efforts?  

This is all pretty early, and we need to speak to people who know this field much better than I do, but my sense is that we need to have a small group of universities who show a deep interest in working along these guidelines and will work over a limited time frame, whereby we still have that discretion to either continue or not with the program.   Hopefully this way we can continue to improve it as time goes along.

How much has the Robertson Foundation actually paid to Princeton for operations at the Woodrow Wilson School, going back to 1961?

Our figures are somewhere in the area of $350 million – probably closer to $400 million now, because the budget has grown to $40 million a year.

How do you look back on your own Princeton experience?  

Halcyon days. The one sort of distinction between my experience and the “Princeton experience” is that I was married as an undergraduate and had a family from the middle of my freshman year. I was absolutely intrigued with the academic work, the quality of the teaching, and the entire atmosphere. It certainly was the one of my greatest experiences in life.

– Interview conducted and condensed by W. Raymond Ollwerther ’71