University Of Alabama Returns $21.5 Million To Hugh Culverhouse

Jun 10, 2019
Originally published on June 11, 2019 6:59 am
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The biggest donor in the history of the University of Alabama says the school is choosing, quote, "zealotry over the well-being of its students." The donor is Florida businessman Hugh Culverhouse. Last year, he pledged $26.5 million to the university. On Friday, the Board of Trustees voted to give it back - all the money he's given so far - and to remove his name from its law school. The reason, his objections to Alabama's controversial new law banning nearly all abortions in the state. At least, that is the reason according to Culverhouse. The university says it was Culverhouse's desire to influence hiring, firing and admissions on campus, and the university has released emails showing the return of Culverhouse's gift was under consideration days before he weighed in on abortion.

Culverhouse wrote about all this in an op-ed published by The Washington Post, and he spoke with us today about it. I asked him why he thinks the decision was tied to his stance on abortion.

HUGH CULVERHOUSE: First, the timing. Second, the timing. Third, the timing.

KELLY: And the timing, as you see it, was what?

CULVERHOUSE: The timing as I see it was a matter of hours. My press release came out, and with a short period of time, the chancellor's statement came out in which he said he was returning the money. And he said the day before they had decided to return the money. I don't believe that. I believe if they had decided to return the money, they would have returned it before.

KELLY: I just want to make sure I understand. So you're saying you made public remarks laying out how clearly you disagree with the Alabama state law on abortion and that after that, the university said, here's all your money, take it back, thanks, but no thanks?

CULVERHOUSE: Correct.

KELLY: So reconcile that with this email that I'm looking at. I'm looking at a copy of an email dated Saturday, May 25. It's from you to the president of the University of Alabama, Stuart Bell. Subject line, return of $10 million paid in advance. You're asking for money back. This was an email dated five days before your public remarks on abortion.

CULVERHOUSE: Yes. Can I explain that?

KELLY: Please.

CULVERHOUSE: OK. The $10 million was money I had paid in advance of the schedule. It was not asking to be paid back 21.5. It was my statement that you have not spent any money out of $21.5 million, some of the money being there for 20 months. If you're going to sit there and not do scholarships and professorships then return the $10 million I advanced, and I'll pay it back to you over the schedule.

KELLY: I suppose the broader point being - without getting deep into the weeds of what check was dated when - there appears to be a paper trail documenting disagreement and rancor that predates your public remarks on abortion.

CULVERHOUSE: Well, the issue I had, the big issue was I felt the class sizes were too small. They were denying to Alabama's students' access. But at some point, the dean agreed to increase the starting class by 8%. That resolved my major issue.

KELLY: It sounds as though you believe that with your money, with your gift, should come some say into how the law school is run.

CULVERHOUSE: Sure. If you look at my speech when it was announced, I clearly stated I intend to be intimately involved. I'm not giving the money to have my name on a building. None of the money I've ever given is that way. I don't give for buildings.

KELLY: I'm sure it's crossed your mind, Mr. Culverhouse, that the losers here are going to be the current and future students of the University of Alabama.

CULVERHOUSE: Yeah. Isn't that sad? My whole goal is to create a middle class because we are losing it. The middle class is becoming the upper-lower class. I'm fortunate. My dad worked for the IRS. We weren't born into money. But we worked our way in. Everybody should have that same chance that I did, he did.

KELLY: Hugh Culverhouse, the Florida real estate investor who gave $26.5 million to the University of Alabama, talking with us there about the school's decision to give it back. Mr. Culverhouse, thank you.

CULVERHOUSE: Thank you very much.

KELLY: All right. For more on this, we turn to NPR's Debbie Elliott in Orange Beach, Ala. Hi, Deb.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: Hello. So two points. One, for the sake of disclosure, I should mention you are a University of Alabama grad.

ELLIOTT: True.

KELLY: Second, what does the university have to say about Culverhouse's allegations of retaliation?

ELLIOTT: Well, the university's position is that Culverhouse is somehow trying to rewrite history by injecting, quote, "one of society's most emotional, divisive issues," end quote, into what was...

KELLY: Meaning the abortion law.

ELLIOTT: Right. The abortion law, into what was really a dispute over his attempts to influence academic policy. And, you know, Culverhouse has been getting a lot of national press since he called on students to boycott the University on May 29. That was two weeks after the governor signed that abortion ban into law. And now, as you noted, before the interview with Culverhouse, we know from email records released by the school that Culverhouse himself had first asked for some of that donation back well before that.

KELLY: Right. And you've looked at all that email evidence that I was combing through today as well. What leapt out at you?

ELLIOTT: Well, I think the fact that days before Culverhouse called for the boycott, there was this email traffic that the chancellor and attorneys had decided to return his donation and take his name off of the law school. Now, that email chain also included some of Culverhouse's missives to school officials. He was trying to have a say in who was hired for a constitutional law professorship named for him. And he belittled the dean of the law school in several emails. I'm going to quote one of them. He said that this dean, quote, "would always be a small-town insecure dean" and the outside world frightens him.

Now, I spoke with a law professor who says faculty at the Alabama law school had concerns about Culverhouse's efforts long before this dispute, that his efforts to intervene in academic policy date back as far as February. This professor also questioned why the University of Alabama should take the blame for a law passed by state lawmakers when several professors at the law school had spoken out against the abortion ban. So I think the broader question here is, you know, how much control does a mega donor deserve?

KELLY: Right. Indeed. And two very different and conflicting views on that, it sounds like, playing out there in Alabama. NPR's Debbie Elliott, thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.