fasthorses/shutterstock

fasthorses/shutterstock

News out of Oxford, Mississippi provides a striking example of how a decades-long partnership between a donor and a university can instantly evaporate thanks to a Facebook post and the lengths to which a “disgraced” donor is willing to go to claw back his gift in a highly charged higher ed fundraising landscape.

Ed Meek led Ole Miss’ public relations department for 37 years and also worked in the publishing business. Meek, wrote Mississippi Today’s Adam Ganucheau, “preached to anyone who would listen the value of teaching digital skills so students could thrive in a changing industry.” Meek also started the local news website HottyToddy.com. In 2009, he gave Ole Miss’ journalism school a $5.3 million gift—a huge amount for a regional public university. Ole Miss renamed the school the Meek School of Journalism in recognition of the gift.

In September of 2018, Meek made a post on his personal Facebook page regarding late-night activity in Oxford after an Ole Miss-Alabama football game. Meek took umbrage to the lack of police presence and lamented “all the pictures last night, the fights and scenes.” Meek then addressed local leaders, saying, “Enough, Oxford and Ole Miss leaders, get on top of this before it’s too late.” The post also included two photos of African-American women wearing short dresses.

The school called the post “highly offensive” and with an “unjustified racial overtone.” After deleting the post, Meeks posted a public apology, saying, “I apologize to those offended by my post. My intent was to point out that we have a problem in The Grove and on the Oxford Square.” An Ole Miss student launched a Change.org petition to have Meek’s name removed from the journalism school. (Click here for the timeline regarding the university’s response to Meek’s initial post.)

Faced with mounting pressure from faculty, Meek asked university officials to remove his name from the journalism school. Meek also released a statement via the school apologizing for the post and to the women depicted in the photograph. Trustees of the state College Board approved the request to remove his name from the school within weeks.

“Impracticable or Impossible to Achieve”

Previous coverage looking at toxic higher ed donors has focused on the fact that many universities haven’t had the proper governance mechanisms in place to, for example, revoke an honorary degree from a tainted individual. Robert O’Neil, a former president of the University of Virginia, said that the proliferation of these “eclectic or haphazard” processes at institutions creates a “very bad precedent.”

Similarly, Harvard alumni, parents, students, and faculty likely recoiled in horror when president university President Lawrence S. Bacow recently said that he considers it “inappropriate” for the school to remove the Sackler family name from campus buildings.

While each case is unique, they all underscore the fact that removing a donor’s name from a building can be an arbitrary and deceptively complex process. In the case of Meek, Ole Miss Chancellor Jeff Vitter, in an open letter to the university community, outlined the governance steps the university would undertake to officially strip Meek’s name. The faculty’s recommendation would proceed to the university’s undergraduate and graduate councils. Then, a group consisting of university stakeholders would have to approve the recommendation. Finally, Vitter would make the final decision on whether to ask the state College Board for permission to rename the building.

But the complexity doesn’t end there. Namely: What happens to Meek’s 2009 $5.3 million donation, which, thanks to interest, has ballooned to $6.4 million? This is where things get really interesting. Normally, individuals within the university community call on the school to return the tainted donor’s gift while others would argue it’s best to keep the money and have it be put to good use. Things unfolded a bit differently at Ole Miss.

The Daily Mississippian’s Neal wrote that Meek had kept a low profile in the six months after the controversy first broke. Five months later, Meek emerged from self-imposed exile when he pulled his $5.3 million Ole Miss donation, plus interest, and redirected it to the CREATE Foundation, a Mississippi community and journalism nonprofit.

Documents filed in Lafayette County Chancery Court read, “As a consequence of a long series of events it is now impossible for the gift to be used as once intended, and my wife and I now desire that the gift be redirected as contemplated in the original letter describing the gift.” On July 30, an Order and Judgement was filed to the Chancery Court, granting the transfer of funds. The order stated, “the Court finds that the particular charitable purpose or a restriction contained in the original Gift instrument has become impracticable or impossible to achieve.”

Meek said some of the funds have already gone to scholarship opportunities for students, and he later plans to donate his estate to the foundation and establish the Ed and Becky Meek Foundation. “This money is in a donor-advised fund,” Meek said. “There are several hundred of those at CREATE. You have the opportunity to advise where the money goes, but it ultimately is the directors’ responsibility to distribute the fund of what is allowed.”

A Cautionary Tale—But with a Twist

The list of higher ed funders that have sought to claw back their donations in recent years is long and growing. It includes the Pearson Family Members Foundation, the Engelstad Family Foundation, real estate executive Hugh Culverhouse Jr., and California-based lawyer Roger Lindmark.

In each of these examples, funders concluded that the recipient university failed to allocate the money in accordance with their wishes. This suggests that today’s big givers are more likely than in the past to keep close tabs on things to ensure that their money is well spent. Often, too, they want to be actively involved in helping big new initiatives succeed, tapping their own skills and networks to move the ball forward.

But the Meek case study differs from the aforementioned examples in one huge way as Meek himself was accused of impropriety and racial insensitivity. “Toxic donors”—an admittedly broad term can encompass anyone from Bill Cosby to Robert W. Garthwait Jr., who resigned as a trustee at Gettysburg College after a student discovered a 39-year-old photo of him dressed as a German soldier—typically apologize for their misdeeds, accept their admonishment, and quietly fade into the background, leaving university administrators to decide what to do with the money.

Meek, however, petitioned to take back his donation and the Lafayette County Chancery Court obliged. Consequently, the Ole Miss controversy serves as a cautionary tale in a somewhat unexpected way. Not only do fundraisers have to add clauses that anticipate PR flare-ups and clearly specify how the money is spent lest they incur the donor’s wrath, they must also prepare for a scenario in which a donor pulls the money if he feels he’s been insufficiently defended in the court of public opinion.

Speaking to the Daily Journal after announcing he’d be transferring his millions to the CREATE Foundation, Meek said, “I’m disappointed. I love Ole Miss. We had major plans for the university. I’m disappointed in the way the school treated me—very unfairly, I think. But, I love the university.”

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