Donors Take Legal Action Against Webster University's Endowment Reclassification


A contentious legal battle has erupted as donors, including a former trustee, file a lawsuit to prevent Webster University from reclassifying endowment funds to fulfill the terms of a loan agreement, as reported by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Donors Take Legal Action Against Webster University's Endowment Reclassification
(Photo : UNSPLASH / Brittney Butler)
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Background: Financial Struggles Prompt Reclassification

Webster University, like many institutions of higher education, has faced financial challenges exacerbated by factors such as declining enrollment, rising operational costs, and economic uncertainty. In response to these pressures, the university sought to bolster its financial position by accessing additional funding through loans. However, these loans often come with stringent terms and conditions, including requirements related to the maintenance of financial ratios and asset liquidity.

One such requirement, outlined in a loan agreement, stipulates that Webster University must "maintain 75% unrestricted assets to outstanding long-term indebtedness," as detailed in court documents. However, as of fiscal year 2023, the university's unrestricted assets had dwindled to a mere 19 percent of its outstanding long-term debt. Faced with the prospect of breaching the terms of a $30 million loan agreement, Webster University initiated efforts to reclassify a portion of its endowment funds from 'restricted' to 'unrestricted' status.

Donor Discontent and Legal Action

The decision to reclassify endowment funds has sparked outrage among some donors who had earmarked their contributions for specific purposes, such as scholarships or academic programs. Among these dissenting voices is former trustee Jack Schreiber, a prominent benefactor of the university who established scholarships in memory of deceased family members.

In court documents, an attorney representing the Schreiber family asserted that if they had been informed that the funds allocated for the Bette Schreiber Endowed Scholarship and the Andrew Schreiber Endowed Scholarship would be repurposed contrary to their intentions, they would not have established or funded the scholarships. This sentiment underscores the importance of donor intent in philanthropic giving and raises questions about the university's fiduciary responsibility in managing donated funds.

Schreiber, a former bank president, relinquished his position on Webster's Board of Trustees in 2018. He cited the university's failure to heed his warnings about accumulating debt and unchecked spending as reasons for his resignation. His decision to pursue legal action against Webster University reflects broader concerns about institutional financial management and governance practices within higher education.

University's Defense and Response

In response to the legal challenge, Webster University has defended its reclassification efforts, emphasizing the necessity to satisfy the terms of the loan agreement and maintain financial stability. Stephanie Dane, a spokesperson for the university, asserted in a statement to Inside Higher Ed that while the reclassification of endowment funds from 'restricted' to 'unrestricted' status has become essential to meet loan agreement terms, the university remains committed to utilizing these funds in alignment with the donors' intentions.

While acknowledging the contributions of all donors, Dane reiterated that after the reclassification, the university would continue to utilize the funds in accordance with the donors' original intent. However, given the ongoing legal proceedings, the university refrained from providing further commentary on the matter.

Implications and Future Outlook

The legal battle between Webster University and its donors underscores the challenges institutions face in balancing financial exigencies with honoring donor intent. As universities navigate complex financial landscapes, they must prioritize transparency, accountability, and ethical stewardship in managing endowed funds. The outcome of this case will have far-reaching implications for philanthropic giving in higher education and may prompt institutions to reevaluate their fundraising strategies and governance practices to ensure alignment with donor expectations.

As the legal proceedings unfold, stakeholders will closely monitor developments, mindful of the broader implications for institutional autonomy, donor relations, and the integrity of endowment management practices within the higher education sector.

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