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Univ. Of Alabama Returns $21.5 Million Gift; Donor Urged Boycott Over Abortion Law

University of Alabama employees remove the name of Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr. from its law school's sign in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Friday, after the board of trustees voted to return $21.5 million to longtime donor Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr.
Blake Paterson
University of Alabama employees remove the name of Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr. from its law school's sign in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Friday, after the board of trustees voted to return $21.5 million to longtime donor Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr.

Updated at 5:02 p.m. ET

The University of Alabama's board of trustees has voted to return a $21.5 million gift from Hugh Culverhouse Jr. — the school's biggest donor — and take his name off its law school. The move comes after Culverhouse urged businesses and prospective students to boycott the university and the state over Alabama's new abortion law.

The school says the transaction to return the funds was processed Friday morning and that it will also return any accrued interest. Last fall, Culverhouse pledged to donate a total of $26.5 million over four years.

"The action taken by the Board today was a direct result of Mr. Culverhouse's ongoing attempts to interfere in the operations of the Law School," the university's vice chancellor for communication, Kellee Reinhart, said Friday. "That was the only reason the Board voted to remove his name and return his money."

Culverhouse issued a statement Friday in which he renewed his call for students "to protest and reconsider their educational options in Alabama."

"I expected this response from UA," he said. "I will not allow my family's name to be associated with an educational system that advocates a state law which discriminates against women, disregards established Federal law and violates our Constitution.

"I want to make clear that I never demanded that $21.5 million be refunded and wonder if the University is attempting to silence my opinions by their quick response. I will not be silenced."

The president of the university, Stuart Bell, said in a statement, "This decision was made for reasons of academic and institutional integrity. I appreciate the actions of the Chancellor and our Board of Trustees and their unwavering support of these intrinsic values."

Culverhouse, a Florida lawyer and investor whose father was a longtime owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, made the largest donation in the school's 187-year history last September when he committed to give $26.5 million. The school had not yet received the remaining $5 million.

But months after the donation was announced, Culverhouse joined those calling for a boycott of Alabama after the governor signed a restrictive abortion law, which outlaws nearly all abortions and does not include exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

Culverhouse's attorney, Lawrence Kellogg, was quoted last month by Florida Politics as saying, "Sixty-six percent of the students at Alabama pay out-of-state tuition. A boycott by them could certainly be effective."

While the university has acknowledged having a dispute with Culverhouse, it insists the decision about his donation is related only to concerns about matters at the school, not at the statehouse.

"University officials say the school had nothing to do with the abortion law and that there was an ongoing dispute with Culverhouse over how his donation would be used," NPR's Debbie Elliott reports. "Culverhouse says he thought it had been resolved and believes the trustees' vote is in retaliation for his position on the abortion ban."

The university says Culverhouse had previously requested the return of $10 million and that he was also making demands about how the money was spent. Last week, University of Alabama System Chancellor Finis St. John recommended to the board that it return Culverhouse's $21.5 million donation to the law school.

On Friday, St. John spoke to the board again as it prepared to vote on the issue. He reiterated his earlier position, saying Culverhouse's expectations for how his gift would be used are "inconsistent with the essential values of academic integrity and independent administration" of the university and its law school.

When Culverhouse committed to making the unprecedented gift last fall, the university decided to rename its law school after him. But within hours of Friday's action by the board, university workers began the process of dismantling Culverhouse's name from the signage outside the law school.

The university's business school is named for his father, Hugh Sr.

Culverhouse went to college in Florida — but he was born in Alabama, and both of his parents went to the University of Alabama and were involved in athletics there. His previous gifts to the school have included more than $2 million to support women's golf scholarships in honor of his mother, who played golf for the Crimson Tide.

But in the current dispute, Culverhouse also mentioned his family's social and political legacy.

"My father was an officer of Planned Parenthood in Jacksonville, Florida, during the 1950s," Culverhouse said in May, according to Florida Politics. Referring to the abortion law, he added, "This is a civil rights issue that has been important to my family for many years."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.