BOSTON — In a highly unusual gesture in an era when even Ivy League institutions are counting pennies, Yale University said Tuesday that it would return a $20-million gift to Texas financier and Yale alumnus Lee M. Bass.
The announcement followed a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal capped by a scathing editorial Tuesday that lambasted Yale for failing to implement a Western civilization curriculum mandated in the 1991 donation from Bass, a 1979 graduate. The Journal said Bass demanded a refund after reaching "the logical conclusion about Yale's treatment of his endowment."
The final blow apparently came when Yale refused to honor Bass' request to approve faculty appointments to the Bass Program of Common Study in Western Civilization. Bass envisioned the curriculum as focusing on the ancient thinkers, artists and writers who shaped the European culture on which much of modern American society is based.
Faculty members at Yale and elsewhere in the Ivy League said there was opposition to the focus of the program among some professors and students who saw it as a traditional "dead, white, European male" academic agenda. Instead, these factions favored a more multicultural approach that would emphasize the historical contributions of minorities and women.
But Yale University President Richard C. Levin said Tuesday that "contrary to some reports, Yale's delay in launching the (Bass) course had nothing to do with its content." Levin expressed regret that the Bass program had "not been worked out in a mutually satisfactory way that would have permitted the gift to remain in place."
From his office in Ft. Worth, Bass said that he was "extremely disappointed that the university felt unable to institute procedures which would assure the proper implementation of the program."
U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Jose A. Cabranes, a Yale trustee, faulted Bass for adding "unacceptable conditions" that "made it impossible to put his program in place."
Ironically, Yale's decision to return the Bass gift came on the same day that Harvard University disclosed that it had received a $70.5-million gift from New York investment banker John Loeb and his wife, Frances. Harvard described Loeb's bequest as one of the 10 largest gifts ever made to a U.S. academic institution.
As a sign of its gratitude, Harvard immediately renamed its presidential residence the John Langleloth and Frances Lehman Loeb House.
Yale's decision to return the Bass gift struck some in academic circles as not only surprising but also embarrassing.
A spokesman for Dartmouth College said it was not uncommon to refuse gifts--but that he could not remember a case of a major university being forced to return one.
"We turn gifts down all the time, particularly gifts with long strings attached," the spokesman said, explaining that Dartmouth had rejected a potentially generous donation from the Playboy Foundation.
Multimillionaire investors, members of the Bass family have a long history with Yale and have donated $80 million to their alma mater.
In New Haven, Conn., Levin said Yale was "deeply grateful" to the Bass family for its "truly extraordinary" generosity toward the school.
But, Levin continued, "we are committed to honoring the understandings that we reach with our many generous donors. We are also committed to fundamental institutional principles. Since the two apparently cannot be reconciled in this instance, returning the gift is the right thing to do."
Lee Bass said the $20 million would be "redirected toward other charitable endeavors."