The Bass Grant: Why Yale gave $20 million back

By Ryan E. Smith

"Return to Sender." That's what Yale effectively stamped on Lee Bass', SM '79, $20 million grant, which was intended to fund an intensive course in Western civilization. Nearly four years after the Bass gift was first announced in April 1991, the public learned that Yale will return the money. Yale's decision to return the donation came amidst a whirlwind of controversy regarding Bass' demands and it leaves numerous uncertainties in its wake.

At the forefront of Yale's decision to return the gift was Bass' request that he have the right to approve the program's professors. His request came in response to the length of time that it took to mount the program, according to Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, BR '68, GRD '72. After Light and Truth reported the delay in implementing the Bass grant last November, the issue entered the media spotlight through editorials and articles in The Wall Street Journal and other national newspapers. University President Richard Levin, GRD '74, and Bass met in December in Fort Worth to attempt to clarify the issues and resolve the growing brouhaha. "When we met in December, [Bass] made it clear that he wanted to have the program as it was originally planned," Levin said. "Within a few days [after the meeting], we had the process back in motion to get the program launched."

But Bass' new request for faculty approval was an insurmountable hitch. Three months of discussion between the University and Bass--from December to February--centered on whether Bass would have such authority, Levin said.

While Gary Fryer, director of public information, admitted that Bass' concern was "totally understandable" given the extensive delay, he said that giving a donor veto power over professor appointments was "simply unheard of." With this unprecedented request by Bass looming over the grant, Fryer said that Yale had no choice but to return the gift. "We would never accept a gift with that condition," he said.

"There are certain fundamental principles, among which is the fact that Yale...had to take responsibility for selecting its own faculty and not give that over to other parties," Terry Holcombe, SY '64, vice president of Development and Alumni Affairs, said.

However, Christopher G. Long, vice president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), said that Yale is placing too much emphasis on Bass' request for faculty approval to dodge questions about the Administration's own actions.

The blame for the loss of the Bass grant - and the Western civilization program it was to fund - must lie on the shoulders of Yale administrators, according to Long. The delay in implementing Bass' wishes was the result of incompetence, faulty leadership, and rigidity, he said.

Between the time the grant was announced and Levin's inauguration, Yale saw the departure of President Benno Schmidt, TC '63, LAW '66, in 1992, and Acting President Howard Lamar, GRD '51, in 1993. The Bass program, originally scheduled to begin in the fall of 1993, was caught in limbo as the Yale leadership changed. "Nothing went forward until I became president in fall 1993. We basically had two academic years lost," Levin said.

While ISI and Light and Truth have also argued that the delay involved the program's intended content, Levin disagreed. "That's all sniffing in the wrong direction. Yale has a very strong program in Western civilization. We've done an admirable job in avoiding strong ideological politi-cization," he said. "There has been no faculty pressure for us to turn down this grant," he added.

Administration officials explained that the delays arose from pragmatic challenges. "There were practical problems that were immensely difficult to wrestle with," Brodhead said, such as the need to cap the program's enrollment because it would not include teaching assistants. Other issues, he said, involved the question of whether the four junior faculty members to be endowed by the grant were to be old or new appointments.

Another major concern was that since the seven Bass professors would be selected from members of the Yale faculty, existing courses might have been weakened, according to Brodhead. "We would have actually had fewer students taking Western civilization courses after this was implemented than before," Levin said.

Yes, the implications of Yale's affair with Lee Bass' money go beyond the decision to return his money and to forego the program it was to fund, however. There are other fish in the sea, and the University is concerned about possible repercussions for the "...and for Yale," its ongoing $1.5 billion fundraising campaign.

Yale currently operates at a deficit and the loss of Bass' $20 million gift will not help. However, returning the money will not make Yale any worse off and will only return it to the "status quo ante," Brodhead said. Yale would not have used the $20 million principal, but instead the income from that, which would have been about $1 million; the $20 million would have become part of the endowment, Brodhead said. "[The return is] really a savings that we won't achieve rather than extra expenses thrust upon us," Holcombe said.

Although the verdict is not yet in on how the controversy will affect donations from other alumni, administrators said they hoped alums will understand the issues surrounding the grant and that fundraising will not be hampered.

"The important thing we've tried to get across to people is that Yale does keep its word, and Yale was prepared to mount the program as agreed to in the 1991 agreement," Holcombe said. Yale needed to take a stand, and it will make it through this crisis just like it has others, including the controversial decision to go coed, according to Holcombe. "There are these crises that come along from time to time, and people express themselves," he said. "Some decide not to make gifts, others decide to make gifts [because of them]."

Robert Escridge, TC '51, is one alumnus who may join the former group. The University's management of the Bass grant has caused him to reconsider giving a considerable gift to Yale in his will, he said. The University's actions told alumni that "we cannot depend on the University to use the funds for the intended purposes for which the grants were made," according to Escridge.

While the decision to return the money was "absolutely the right thing to do," Escridge said the damage had already been done. The delay grew from political issues, due to a liberal activist faculty, he said. Escridge called Administration statements that content was not a factor in the delays "lame excuses." "It's patently, obviously a political response, and it's a negative one," he said.

According to Long, Escridge is not the only disappointed Yale alum. He said he agreed with Escridge's assessment of the situation and called regretful faculty responses "crocodile tears." Levin was "walking a tightrope between alumni on one side and faculty on the other," and denying the grant's political nature, Long said, only serves to discredit the University.

Long said that he has spoken with several alumni who have already decided not to give large gifts to Yale because of the handling of the donation, and he said there are many others who will follow suit.

Lee Bass is only one of four billionaire Basses who have given millions to Yale in the past, and Sid Bass, TD '65, is a Yale trustee. Levin said he hoped that the controversy would not tarnish Yale's relationship with the family and that they could continue to enjoy "good relations."

Even as the Bass controversy may have had effects on Yale's fundraising efforts and national reputation, Levin said he believes alums will understand the University's position. "I think most of out alumni understand that this was an unusual situation, an aberration. Normally, we are good stewards of grant money," Levin said.

Yale will continue its dedication to providing courses on Western Civilization, even without the Bass grant, according to Levin. Undergraduates will be able to take a new political science course next semester that traces the evolution of democracy from ancient Greece to the fall of the Communism in Europe. The course, to be year-long and team-taught, was organized through faculty initiative, according to Levin.


Copyright 1995, The Yale Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

This article may be freely distributed electronically, provided it is distributed in its entirety and includes this notice, but may not be reprinted without the express written permission of The Yale Herald, Inc. Write to herald@yale.edu for additional details.