A big-ticket donor whose name was stripped from the University of Alabama’s law school late last week has maintained that he is being punished for his public stance against the state’s abortion ban.
But emails released by the university this weekend offer a different view of the situation: One of a meddling donor who wanted the power to make hiring decisions; who repeatedly clashed with and insulted the school’s dean; and who had exhausted the patience of administrators days before he called on students to boycott the university in protest of the abortion ban.
The emails provide a rare insight into to the deterioration of the relationship between the University of Alabama and Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr., who last fall pledged $26.5 million to the law school—the single largest gift in the university’s history. The emails indicate that Chancellor Finis St. John was swayed to return the $21.5 million that Culverhouse had paid thus far and remove his name from the law school May 25, before Culverhouse publicly called for a boycott of the university.
“These emails also clearly establish that Chancellor St. John’s recommendation to refund all monies and rename the law school came on May 25—four days prior to any public comment by the donor about abortion,” according to a statement released by vice-chancellor for communications Kellee Reinhart. “The donor’s continuing attempt to rewrite history by injecting one of society’s most emotional, divisive issues into this decision is especially distasteful.”
But Culverhouse on Monday disputed that conclusion and said in a released statement that he never asked for the school to return the full $21.5 million and that he never heard university officials discussing that option until after he called for a boycott on May 29.
In an interview Monday, Culverhouse said the university was selective in which emails it released, and that he believed those emails were manipulated to present a false timeline of when university leaders decided to return his entire law school donation. He said that administrators should have told him directly if they believed he was overstepping in his role as donor, but that no such conversation took place. Yet they waited until the day after he called for the boycott to tell him they wanted to cut ties, Culverhouse said.
“Did anyone call me and say, ‘Hugh can we talk to you about the law school? Can we talk to you about your personality? We think you’re an asshole.’” he said, nothing that the university has not moved to return the combined $9 million he has given to its business school and women’s golf team. “No . Nothing. I had not a word.”
Reached Monday, Reinhart declined to comment beyond the release of the emails.
The university’s board of trustees unanimously voted to return Culverhouse’s donation and remove his name from the school June 7. Later that day, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Culverhouse, in which he wrote that the law is an act of oppression against women and that he was compelled to take a public stand against it. (Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who signed the abortion ban into law, sits on the university’s board of trustees.)
On June 9, the university released 17 pages of email correspondence between various campus officials, law dean Mark Brandon, and Culverhouse dating back to May 17 that chronicle escalating tensions over a variety of issues outside of the abortion law and boycott call. The university had previously denied that the decision to return Culverhouse’s money was tied to the abortion debate, but the emails offer a more detailed view of how the relationship soured. They show that Culverhouse expected a hands-on role at the law school, while the dean and others resisted that level of involvement while also trying unsuccessfully to placate him.
The emails show that Culverhouse was unhappy with various aspects of the law school’s direction and made various requests. Among them:
- The candidates for a new endowed professorship in constitutional law bearing his name were underwhelming and “hardly nationally stature constitutional law figures.”
- Culverhouse felt the law school had too many faculty and should either downsize or the school should expand to 500 or 600 students. It now has 381 students.
- He pushed for the hiring of a specific person within the admissions office, but administrators worried that they did not want someone in the position whose “institutional loyalty might be suspect.”
- Culverhouse wanted free rein to sit in on law school classes during an upcoming campus visit.
- On May 24, Culverhouse emailed Brandon to express his displeasure with the direction of the law school and inform the dean that he had removed the law school as a beneficiary of his will.
Culverhouse didn’t mince words in his emails, writing May 25 that Brandon, “will always be a small town, insecure dean.” The same day, he wrote an email to University of Alabama president Stuart Bell taking issue with his seeming lack of involvement in decision-making at the law school.
“You seem to think the quid pro quo is I give you the largest sum and commitment in the school’s history and have no return consideration as your end of the transaction,” he wrote. “‘Thanks for the money—Good bye.’”
Brandon was also blunt with university administrators about Culverhouse’s involvement. “I also think he misunderstands the mission and fiscal logic of a university, the environment in which the law school operates, the nature of decision-making in a public academic institution, and the relationship between the school of law and the university,” Brandon wrote in a May 17 email to Bell. Culverhouse’s proposal to use scholarship funds to dramatically increase enrollment is a “recipe for mediocrity” that would open the door for competitor law schools such as the University of Georgia and the University of Florida to bypass Alabama, he warned.
According to the emails, Culverhouse on May 24 requested the return of $10 million of his pledged donation that were paid to the university ahead of schedule. In his statement Monday, Culverhouse said he did not want his full donation back, but rather wanted to return to the original donation payment schedule. That request appears to have prompted St. John to recommend the following day that his entire donation be returned and that the school cut ties with him.
Culverhouse graduated from the University of Florida Levin College of Law in 1974, but his family has strong ties the University of Alabama, where both his parents attended. The university’s business school is named for his father, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse Sr.
Culverhouse wrote in an email to Brandon on May 17 that the university’s business school made a point of consulting with him during a recent dean’s search. “I expect the same protocol at the law school,” he wrote.