Yale to return $20 million to unhappy benefactor

March 15, 1995|By New York Times News Service

Four years after giving $20 million to Yale University to expand its Western civilization curriculum, Lee M. Bass, a billionaire alumnus, has requested that the money be returned because Yale never instituted the courses.

The university -- which in recent weeks had been scrambling to devise a curriculum to satisfy Mr. Bass -- announced yesterday that it had agreed to give back the $20 million after concluding that it could not accept his conditions.

The most troublesome of these, Yale officials said, was Mr. Bass' recent request that he be allowed to approve the faculty members for the courses.

The grant had been the subject of intense political debate since it was announced in April 1991 by Benno Schmidt Jr., who was then Yale's president.

Liberal faculty members had criticized the restrictions placed on the donation, arguing that the money could be better spent on courses with a multicultural perspective, particularly since Yale has more than 100 undergraduate courses that deal with Western thought.

But other faculty members, particularly conservatives, had joined Mr. Schmidt in lauding the proposed program as a powerful antidote to the rush to embrace multiculturalism on the country's elite campuses.

In the end, the dispute said as much about the multicultural debate in America as it did about the pitfalls for universities that accept gifts with strings attached in an era of tight budgets.

It is a mark of the politically charged debate that the news of Mr. Bass withdrawing his $20 million first was made public yesterday on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, a leading national conservative voice and a loud critic of multiculturalism.

The donation by Mr. Bass, the youngest of four billionaire brothers from Texas, was one of the largest ever received by Yale and is believed to be the most that a university has ever agreed to give back.

His gift was part of a series, totaling $85 million, that the members of his oil-rich family presented to Yale between 1990 and 1992.

"To the best of my knowledge, this is the largest gift that has ever been returned by an institution to a donor," said Peter Buchanan, the president and chief executive of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, a nonprofit advocacy group. "It is aberrant to an extreme, given that on an annual basis alumni are giving to higher education almost $3 billion and almost nothing is returned."

The last time a university gave back a donation of this magnitude, apparently, was September 1989, when the University of Utah returned $15 million worth of stock to a businessman who had sought to have its medical center named for him.

The centerpiece of the Bass Western civilization program was to have been an intensive one-year undergraduate course that would have analyzed virtually every significant development in Western history, from ancient Mesopotamia to Nazi Germany. The double-credit course was originally scheduled to begin in the fall of 1993 but never got off the ground after Mr. Schmidt left Yale for the private sector in May 1992.

While the university used half the money to endow five new professorships in Western courses, the other half -- the $10 million that was to be spent specifically on the course and the assistant professors who would teach it -- sat untouched in a college account as Mr. Schmidt's successor, Richard Levin, struggled to quell fierce faculty disagreement over the design of the course.

In December, Yale officials said, Mr. Levin traveled to Fort Worth and informed Mr. Bass that he was finally prepared to go forward with the curriculum as Mr. Bass had originally conceived it. But the negotiations became snagged soon after when Mr. Bass, who had watched his program twist in the wind for four years, sought assurances that he would be able to approve the professors.

"The university's reluctance to enter into such an agreement," Mr. Bass said in a statement yesterday, "led to our mutual decision that the gift should be returned."

Mr. Levin, who was traveling in the Galapagos Islands and unavailable for an interview, released a statement through Yale saying that the money would be given back.

"It is unfortunate but inevitable that friends must disagree from time to time," Mr. Levin said. "Although Yale had informed Mr. Bass that it was prepared to implement the program as envisioned in the original agreement, we could not honor the donor's new request to approve faculty appointments."

With the university on spring break, many professors, including those involved with designing the Bass program, said that they had been shocked to first read of the gift's return in the Journal editorial.

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