JP Morgan Chase is the administrator of Columbia University’s problematic… (Spencer Platt, Getty Images )
In 1920, Columbia University received a gift of more than half a million dollars from a longtime resident of Des Moines.
Six days before her death, Lydia C. Chamberlain, a wealthy divorcee, had created a trust meant to finance a fellowship for Columbia graduate students. At $750, the first Lydia C. Roberts Graduate Fellowship — reflecting her maiden name — covered Columbia's tuition and living expenses.
But Columbia hasn't touched the trust in years, because the money is entangled in what officials say are impractical and illegal restrictions from a bygone era. Under the terms of the trust, a recipient had to be an Iowa-born graduate of one of the state's colleges or universities, and not planning to study law, medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry or theology.
And the recipient had to be white.
For reasons practical and symbolic, the university and trust administrator JP Morgan Chase filed papers in May in New York Supreme Court to change the terms of the fellowship. University policy has long allowed donor restrictions that violate laws or policies to be ignored, officials said. The court action formalizes their position, as well as liberalizing the requirements overall.
The changes in the petition include striking out the requirement for Roberts fellows to be "of the Caucasian race."
In a statement, the university noted that federal, state and local law barred discrimination based on race, as did university policy. (Although it is a private university, Columbia is subject to anti-discrimination laws because it receives federal financial assistance, according to the court filing.)
"It should go without saying that a university rightly known for the great diversity of its student body is as offended as anyone by the requirements of these fellowships," the statement said.
There were 27 Roberts fellows in 1997, the last time the fellowship was awarded. Although officials said Columbia had already stopped adhering to the race restriction, the fellowship was tabled because of the numerous other restrictions.
Robert Hornsby, a university spokesman, said in an email that the recent steps to formally dispute the terms of the trust arose out of an ongoing review of gifts the university could no longer use. Such gifts include donor restrictions that were "impossible or impractical for a variety of reasons, generally related to changed circumstances over time," Hornsby said.
The process of removing race-based restrictions from fellowships and financial aid awards was more common in the 1970s and 1980s, said Ian Haney Lopez, a law professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in race and constitutional law.
He said Columbia was "a little late" here — but better late than never.
"It's important ... for Columbia University symbolically to amend this fellowship," Haney Lopez said, in what he described as part of an ongoing effort to correct a legacy of bias in the United States.
Columbia's affidavit also states that the requirement for a student to be born in Iowa violates laws against discrimination based on national origin. Under the proposed changes, anyone who is an Iowa resident or graduated from a college or university in the state would be eligible.
From 2005 to 2012, 102 graduate students who attended Columbia provided the university with an Iowa address, according to the affidavit. The number likely overlaps with the 127 students who the university said earned previous degrees from a college or university in Iowa.
Officials hope expanding the residency requirements will give more people access to the funds.
"There is no more important priority for higher education than finding ways to make quality education affordable," Hornsby wrote in an email.
The university also wants to change a restriction that bars Roberts recipients from seeking other means of financial assistance to supplement the fellowship. In 1920, tuition and living expenses cost about $691 combined, so the $750 stipend more than covered a student's needs. Today, average tuition alone at Columbia's graduate schools is about $42,300; in the last year that it disbursed fellowships, the trust distributed $616,000, which amounted to about $22,800 per student.
Doug Gross, a Des Moines lawyer who ran for governor of Iowa in 2002, received the fellowship in 1977. He said it was a "godsend" financially.
"I was a poor kid from rural Iowa — there's no way I would have been able to afford to go to Columbia without it," Gross said.
But he said he didn't know about the race-related restriction, and wouldn't have accepted the award if he had.
"That's wrong. That should be against public policy," Gross said. "I'm hopeful they're able to get that changed."
As for Lydia Chamberlain, some mystery remains.
She was born in 1826 and lived in Des Moines until 1919, when she sold the Chamberlain Hotel and moved to New York. Her marriage to Davis S. Chamberlain, who co-owned Chamberlain Medicine Co. in Des Moines, ended in divorce. Surviving relatives with a stake in the estate have yet to surface.
It is not clear what Chamberlain had against those studying law, medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry or theology, or whether the racial restrictions invoked by her trust were pro forma for the day or something she demanded.
Even the most basic detail — what tied her to Columbia University — is lost to time.