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In 1961, heirs to the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. fortune created the Robertson Foundation and donated $35 million to Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The donation by Charles and Marie Robertson, now a $600 million endowment, funds most of the school’s programs, designed to groom students for foreign service careers as a counterbalance to communism. But the Robertsons’ heirs now want the money back to give to another institution of higher learning. In a suit filed July 17 in New Jersey’s Mercer County Superior Court, the heirs claim the university violated the foundation’s charter — and the donors’ intent — by commingling the endowment with the university’s other funds during the past several decades. In the complaint, Robertson v. Princeton University, C-99-02, plaintiffs’ attorney Anne McHugh writes that “the mission of the Foundation to train government servants with particular emphasis on international affairs has not been fulfilled.” The plaintiffs also allege that four of the seven members of the foundation’s board of trustees, appointed by the university, have “disenfranchised” the three members appointed by the Robertson heirs by withholding information and using the fund to pay for projects outside the foundation’s mission. The Robertsons, according to the complaint, so trusted university officials that they allowed the university to appoint a majority of the trustees. That trust has come back to bite them, says McHugh, a partner at Pellettieri, Rabstein & Altman in Princeton. For example, according to the complaint, the university-appointed trustees devised a scheme to transfer control of the foundation’s assets to a university-controlled company, Princeton University Investment Co. “If the university-designated trustees’ proposal is implemented, the family trustees will be unable to participate meaningfully in or oversee investment of the Foundation’s assets,” the complaint said. McHugh is asking Judge Neil Shuster to declare that the alleged commingling is prohibited under the foundation’s charter, to order an audit of the foundation’s finances, to move the assets to another as-yet-unnamed university and to award attorneys’ fees. The university’s general counsel, Peter McDonough, did not return telephone calls seeking comment. University President Shirley Tilghman told The New York Times in a story published on July 18 that 30 percent to 40 percent of the school’s graduates go into government service. She added that the heirs cannot move the assets to another institution because the foundation’s charter restricts the funds for the benefit of Princeton University. The foundation provides Woodrow Wilson with about 75 percent of its annual operating budget. The Robertsons created the foundation at the height of the Cold War. They believed more students should be educated in diplomacy and international relations in an attempt to counter communist aggression. In a Nov. 27, 1972, letter to his children, Charles Robertson, a 1926 Princeton graduate, noted that the university had failed to place many graduates in federal government service. McHugh wrote in the complaint, “There continues to be a dearth of qualified professional placements from the Woodrow Wilson School into government service in international arenas.” The complaint charges that the university has failed to live up to the Robertsons’ expectations. The complaint notes that in 1996, Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board who was then a visiting professor at the school, wrote a critique of the school by saying it had failed to achieve its mission, in part by using foundation money for other purposes. The complaint cites the university’s decision in 1997 to buy land and construct a new building to accommodate the expansion of the university’s social sciences school and the Woodrow Wilson School. Though the university initially pledged to not rely on the foundation’s funds, the four university-appointed fund trustees withdrew about $13 million last June to pay for the building, Wallace Hall. “As members of the Robertson Foundation’s Board of Trustees, the University-Designated Trustees owe a fiduciary duty to the Foundation, including a duty of undivided loyalty and a special duty to advance its charitable goals and protect its assets from uses that are not part of the Foundation’s mission,” McHugh wrote.

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