The fight between the University of Alabama and its largest-ever donor—whose $21.5 million gift was returned last week—escalated over the weekend, with the school releasing internal emails attempting to prove the return “was never about the issue of abortion.”
But on Monday, the Florida-based attorney and philanthropist Hugh Culverhouse Jr. upped the ante, claiming in an interview with The Daily Beast that at least one of those emails was “doctored” by university officials in order to retroactively justify their decision.
Culverhouse, the son of the late Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner by the same name, had claimed in a Washington Post op-ed last week that the university returned his donation and removed his name from the law school on May 29 after he called for out-of-state students to boycott the university for supporting Alabama’s near-total abortion ban.
“The ban on abortion they passed wasn’t just an attack against women, it was an affront to the rule of law itself,” Culverhouse wrote. “I expected that speaking out would have consequences, but I never could have imagined the response from the University of Alabama, which on Friday said it would be returning my gift and removing my name from the law school.”
The university’s chancellor, Finis St. John, announced his recommendation to return the funds last Wednesday, and the board of trustees voted to carry it out on Friday.
In a statement on Sunday, following Culverhouse’s op-ed, the school claimed the decision was “always about ending the continued outside interference by the donor in the operations of the University of Alabama School of Law” and, in the released emails, pointed to Culverhouse’s “unacceptable” interactions with Mark Brandon, the dean of the law school, and Stuart Bell, the university’s president.
University of Alabama Spokeswoman Kellee Reinhart wrote that Culverhouse “attempted to influence” student admissions, scholarship awards, the hiring and firing of faculty, and Brandon’s employment status.
“These emails clearly establish that Chancellor St. John’s recommendation to refund all monies and rename the law school came on May 25—4 days prior to any public comment by the donor about abortion,” Reinhart claimed. “The donor’s continuing effort to rewrite history by injecting one of society’s most emotional, divisive issues into this decision is especially distasteful. These facts should finally set the record straight.”
The recommendation to return Culverhouse’s donations and remove his name from the law school purportedly came after a string of other emails in which the attorney told Brandon and Bell he was unhappy with the chosen candidates for an endowed chair position in his name and asked that a portion of his donation—$10 million—be returned.
“I wanted a renowned Constitutional law professor,” Culverhouse wrote on the morning of May 25. “Someone to make academic waves... These are nice additions to a 3,880 faculty with an insecure dean—but they are hardly nationally stature Constitutional law figures.”
“I believe Mark, you and I come from different concepts,” Culverhouse added. “I want the best law school, not a mediocre law school, whose ranking is a simple mathematical manipulation. I also know you have never dealt with a gift of my size—either for endowed professor or for a something as large as to change the name of the law school.”
He added a personal insult: “You are unprepared. Mark will always be a small town, insecure dean. The outside world frightens him.”
But Culverhouse told The Daily Beast he still believes the university returned the donation “as retaliation for calling on students to reconsider attending a university that advocates a state law that discriminates against women and is unconstitutional,” and that the documents it released to disprove his claims were “generated and manufactured.”
“I don’t believe that’s a genuine document,” Culverhouse said, referring to a specific email in which Joe Espy, chair of the legal committee for the school’s board of trustees, asked the university’s general counsel Sid Trant to draft a plan for returning the funds.
“The title and the body don’t mix,” Culverhouse alleged to The Daily Beast. “I don’t believe it.”
The email’s subject line was “Re: Return of $10,000,000 paid in advance,” Culverhouse noted, but, he said, the body of the email details a request to begin the process of returning “any other money” Culverhouse donated.
In response to Culverhouse’s allegations, Reinhart said the university is “completely comfortable allowing the record to speak for itself” and had “nothing else to add to this episode.”
Culverhouse, meanwhile, said he wasn’t informed about the money’s return and change to the law school’s name until he read about it in the news.
“That was kind of a kick in the shin,” he said.
“Wouldn’t you call me before you sent back all the money? Wouldn’t you do me that simple favor?” he asked. “I wish they called and said, ‘Hugh, these are the issues we’ve got a problem with’ and try and solve them.”
Still insistent his funds were returned over his public stance in favor of abortion rights, Culverhouse said, “I’m doing something that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the law school. It’s my First Amendment right.”
He added: “All of the states that have passed anti-abortion statutes, Alabama was the worst. I’m sorry but I can’t quit this because I believe in it.”
Prior to his involvement with the law school, Culverhouse said he donated $9 million to other programs at the University of Alabama.
“Either I’m a sweetheart at golf and business and a monster at law, or somebody’s fudging.”