How money, clout and abortion laws fueled a PR firestorm

The University of Alabama returned a $21 million gift to the donor, who claims the move is retaliation for his pro-choice advocacy. The exchange is a cautionary tale of a lag in messaging.

Even communicators at nonprofits have to get in front of controversies, lest they lose control of the narrative.

The University of Alabama has decided to return the largest-ever gift to the school—$21.5 million—and remove the donor’s name from its law school, citing his meddling in university administration. The donor, Hugh Culverhouse Jr., says the move is retaliation for his outspoken defense of a woman’s right to choose after the State of Alabama passed restrictive abortion laws along with other states this year.

Amid the they said/he said, which garnered widespread attention, the university lagged in clearly asserting that its decision had nothing to do with the abortion debate, but rather stemmed from an internal matter.

In response to the donation rejection, Culverhouse penned an op-ed in The Washington Post claiming that the university wasn’t ready for a big donor to advocate a boycott of the state of Alabama.

He wrote:

I expected that speaking out would have consequences, but I never could have imagined the response from the University of Alabama, which on Friday said it would be returning my gift and removing my name from the law school. This decision will hurt future students. Less money will be available for scholarships, and there will be fewer resources for the school to use to educate young minds and help them grow.

It has been painful to witness administrators at the university choose zealotry over the well-being of its own students, but it’s another example of the damage this attack on abortion rights will do to Alabama. The bill will not survive a court challenge, and likely will cost the state a great deal in court fees and other expenses that could be used to help its citizens. But for those who support it, that collateral damage doesn’t even merit a passing thought. Total victory must be achieved, even if it means running roughshod over people’s rights and harming students.

This isn’t just about politics. I am an independent — not a Democrat or a Republican. But taking away a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body isn’t about politics, either; it’s an act of oppression. This is a moment for people of conscience to take a stand and be prepared to speak out against the actions of lawmakers in states such as Alabama who want to roll back the clock to an era when women needed to risk their lives to get an abortion. That’s why I have chosen to support the American Civil Liberties Union in its challenge of this unconscionable act. And I urge others to do so, too.

The university then released a statement pushing back on Culverhouse’s assertions. Both Vice Chancellor of Communications Kellee Reinhart and Chancellor Finis E. St John insisted the decision to return Culverhouse’s gift was apolitical.

Reinhart said:

“The action taken by the Board today was a direct result of Mr. Culverhouse’s ongoing attempts to interfere in the operations of the Law School. That was the only reason the Board voted to remove his name and return his money. Any attempt by Mr. Culverhouse to tie this action to any other issue is misleading and untrue.”

The chancellor, too, was unequivocal:

“As you also know, the law school received a significant pledge last year. Since that time, it has become clear that the donor’s expectations for the use and application of that gift have been inconsistent with the essential values of academic integrity and independent administration of the Law School and the University. Despite the diligent efforts and good faith of our Dean and President, there is no path forward consistent with those values. While we are grateful to all of our donors and supporters, and very grateful to this donor and his family, donors do not dictate our administration of the University. For these reasons, and these reasons alone, it is my recommendation that we return this donor’s gift in its entirety, plus earnings, and restore the name of the law school as “The University of Alabama School of Law.” One last point: we will learn from this – and always remember that we cannot and will not compromise the values of academic integrity and independent administration at any price. That concludes my comments.”

However, because the university declined to specify reasons or scenarios for the return of the huge gift, the public has been left to draw its own conclusions—and Culverhouse isn’t staying quiet.

NPR reported:

Culverhouse issued a statement Friday in which he renewed his call for students “to protest and reconsider their educational options in Alabama.”

“I expected this response from UA,” he said. “I will not allow my family’s name to be associated with an educational system that advocates a state law which discriminates against women, disregards established Federal law and violates our Constitution.

“I want to make clear that I never demanded that $21.5 million be refunded and wonder if the University is attempting to silence my opinions by their quick response. I will not be silenced.”

The president of the university, Stuart Bell, said in a statement, “This decision was made for reasons of academic and institutional integrity. I appreciate the actions of the Chancellor and our Board of Trustees and their unwavering support of these intrinsic values.”

Culverhouse’s version of the events has sparked fire on social media, and now the university is going to great lengths to change the narrative.

As Kyle Whitmire wrote for AL.com:

There are big problems with that narrative, problems that show little of Culverhouse’s premise, if any, may be true, and that he hijacked the abortion debate and Alabama’s ugly moment in the national spotlight as a preemptive attack against the university.

The university has now released email exchanges between Culverhouse and university officials showing the dispute as something else entirely — a bitter, personal feud between the University and one of the institution’s biggest donors. Those emails show Culverhouse trying to influence hiring decisions, admissions and scholarships — and threatening to take his money out of the school when he didn’t get his way.

“I want to talk next week and go over every candidate, but your actions have resulted in my not giving any further gifts to Alabama and yesterday, I removed Alabama as a beneficiary from my will/trust,” Culverhouse wrote to the university’s law school dean on May 24. “That amount makes a mockery of the sums I have given.”

The conflict illustrates quandaries that communicators face in the current cultural landscape. Many organizations that rely on wealthy donations have been considering giving up the money to sever ties or reduce the influence of some patrons. Several big museums cut ties with the Sackler family after reports that the philanthropists’ money came from profiteering on the opioid crisis in the U.S.

Other organizations have been forced to wade into the issue of the abortion laws passed by Alabama and other states, given that employees and businesses have said they won’t bring new business to states that restrict abortion access.

The Culverhouse incident is a lesson for communicators who have to explain why their organization is returning a big donation or turning its back on a benefactor. Rebuffed donors won’t go quietly.

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