Administrators and advancement officers at Duke University are wiping egg off their face after a highly visible and embarrassing episode involving a potential donor’s $10 million gift to the school.
Oil magnate Aubrey McClendon was a dedicated Duke alumnus, donating more than $20 million to the university before his untimely death in a car accident in early March. At the time of his death, McClendon had apparently pledged an additional $10 million to Duke fundraisers to go towards athletic costs, academic bursaries, and campus improvements.
It was then quickly reported—by local and national outlets—that the school was filing claims against McClendon’s estate for the $10 million. The tycoon’s lawyers say his estate was responsible for some $500 million in various debts. Realising how this looked, Duke administrators released a statement, which read in part: “This is a routine transaction that in no way diminishes Duke’s respect for the McClendon family and our gratitude for their relationship to Duke.”
But by late August, public attention around the case had intensified and Duke dropped its claim. “Duke University has withdrawn its claim for assets from the estate of Aubrey K. McClendon,” Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in a statement., “[I]n this case our action was misperceived as adversarial to the McClendon family, which was never the intention. Aubrey was one of our most passionate and loyal graduates, always willing to support Duke when asked. We are deeply sorry for any pain this has caused the McClendon family."
Herein lies a textbook example of why donor intent and planned giving are such important tasks for a university—or any nonprofit—to get right. Duke insists this is more or less a big misunderstanding, saying that they were following legal procedure but never intended to raid McClendon’s estate for the $10 million. But the Wall Street Journal reports that the second statement announcing the withdrawal of claims against the estate “caught members of the university’s fundraising office by surprise.” Clearly, it seems, PR-minded administrators at Duke wanted the whole mess to go away and went over the heads of their fundraisers, who were willing to fight in court for their slice of the McClendon pie.
This looks bad—grasping at worst, unprofessional at best. And it seems to have damaged relations between Duke and the McClendon family, which now may remain in a chilly state for the foreseeable future.
No-one could have predicted the sudden death of 56-year-old McClendon, but Duke perhaps should have gone to greater lengths to formalize whatever understandings it had with him as they were being made. At the least, they could have coordinated directly with the family before or at the same time as they filed claims in court in order to head off any perception of money-grubbing.
Instead, the school must now beat a speedy retreat.