Six days before her death in 1920, Lydia C. Roberts, a wealthy Iowa divorcee living in Manhattan, bequeathed Columbia University most of her $509,000 estate, creating a highly restrictive fellowship that stipulated the money may be only given to “a person of the Caucasian race” from Iowa. But the educational institution is attempting to change the terms the 93-year-old trust.
For reasons no longer known, Robert’s endowment came with several strings attached. It also forbade the recipient from studying law, medicine, dentistry, veterinary surgery, or theology, and the student must move back to Iowa for a minimum of two years after graduation.
Because of its restrictive terms, the university has not awarded the fellowship since 1997, although the school said it does not know precisely when when Columbia stopped adhering to the race-related provision of the gift. “Columbia long ago ceased awarding the fellowships in question and does not follow gift conditions that violate anti-discrimination laws,” the university said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”
Universities must generally adhere to the restrictions on endowments as long as they are legal, as University of Iowa Foundation’s chief operating officer Tiffani Shaw told USA Today. In this case, the terms of the Lydia C. Roberts Graduate Fellowship may violate United States anti-discrimination law.
The university’s associate provost, Lucy Drotning, filed an affidavit in a state Supreme Court in Manhattan last week in support of legal action taken by JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), the estate’s trustee, as part of its own efforts to change the terms of the trust. The court papers requested that the whites-only provision be thrown out and the Iowa-only rule be modified to allow students that are residents of the state or students who graduated from colleges there be eligible for the award.
Even though the intent behind Roberts’ donation is unknown, challengers to the fellowships racial stipulations argue that its terms violate federal anti-discrimination laws. “It could be the donor put ‘white’ in there because at the time most students at Columbia University were white,” Angela Onwuachi-Willig a law professor at the University of Iowa, told the publication. “But it also could mean that it was a direct intent to discriminate against students of color. I think that the university would have a right to contest the continued use of the fund under those restrictions.”
It is true that many schools offer scholarships targeted toward racial minorities, but, according to legal experts, the purpose of the award determines whether a scholarship discriminates. “There’s a difference between considering race as a factor in giving a scholarship where you’re trying to cultivate diversity, versus a scholarship where the intent is to exclude people based upon perceived inferiority of their race,” said Onwuachi-Willig.
According to court papers, the current value of the trust is $840,000, and it earned $26,000 in income in 2011.
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