Spelman’s return of Cosby fund shows donors can be dilemma

Largest U.S. university endowments

Harvard, $35,883,691,000

University of Texas system, $25,425,922,000

Yale, $23,900,000,000

Stanford, $21,446,006,000

Princeton, $20,995,518,000

Largest endowments among Georgia colleges

Emory, $6,681,479,000

Georgia Tech, $1,889,014,000

University of Georgia, $939,024,000

Berry College, $916,828,000

Spelman College, $367,037,000

2014 figures, from report by the National Association of College and University Business Officers and the Commonfund Institute.

Spelman College’s decision to sever its ties to Bill Cosby discontinued a prestigious professorship funded by the comedian and his wife and highlighted one of the problems that can arise in colleges’ relationships with donors who fund their endowments.

When disagreements arise over the use of the money, it can result in the donation being returned or, as in Spelman’s case, a donor’s behavior can cause the school to tell the donor and his money goodbye.

The donated funds are designed to support an aspect of the university’s operations — such as research, scholarship or faculty salaries — built up over several years and invested.

In addition to ending the William and Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Endowed Professorship, a spokeswoman said Spelman returned the money associated with it to a foundation established by Cosby's wife.

The professorship was funded through a $20 million gift from the Cosbys to the college in 1998 that also helped fund a new academic center bearing the name of Cosby’s wife. The decision to end it follows revelations uncovered in court depositions that Cosby obtained drugs for women he wanted to have sex with.

Spelman hasn’t said how much money was associated with the Cosby professorship. The college also had no comment this week on whether the name of the academic building would be changed.

Atlanta playwright and novelist Pearl Cleage, a 1971 Spelman graduate who once held that professorship, said, “I am very proud of Spelman College for discontinuing the Cosby Chair and returning the funds to the family foundation.”

The program “brought an outstanding group of women scholars and artists to the campus,” many of whom maintain a relationship with the college, “but I am confident that Spelman will continue to attract great women to interact with the students and faculty and that their principled stand as an institution will only enhance their reputation as a place that produces outstanding women who are committed to excellence and for whom truth and sisterhood are always at the heart of the matter,” Cleage said.

"When people talk about 'an endowment' they typically speak about an institution's total endowment, but in actuality, that total is made up of individual gifts, and each is treated as a separate accounting entity," said

“Colleges announce when they receive gifts, but many times not when they give gifts back, so it’s extraordinary for Spelman to come out and say this,” Cunningham said. “Spelman probably got pressure about cutting ties (with Cosby), but it was made easier by the other institutions that had already done so.”