Take Till It Hurts

Elroy Stock writes racist letters and gives big money to little institutions. One recipient, Augsburg College, wanted to cash in without owning up.

While there have been plenty of court cases where donors have sued to recover their gifts, those suits usually revolve around claims that the money was misspent. Jorstad allows that there is scant precedence for Stock's claim. So, should there be a trial, the Augsburg lawyer is considering a host of strategies. Under one broad legal principle, known as the doctrine of unclean hands, for instance, Jorstad says he can argue that the court should deny Stock's claim on the grounds that "it would be unfair to give a half a million dollars to someone who has harmed so many human beings." Jorstad could also make the claim that forcing the college to name a building after Stock would violate the school's Lutheran values, and thus its First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Or Jorstad could simply argue that Stock essentially waived his right to sue by accepting the honors Augsburg did confer on him. "Even if there was a contract, and even if it was breached, which the college denies, Augsburg and Stock reached a resolution: the plaque and the dinner," Jorstad insists. "He can't just call that into question 12 years later."

 

At Augsburg, the Elroy Stock affair no longer elicits much of a reaction from the student body. Boyd Koehler, Augsburg's former affirmative-action officer and current advisor to the school's newspaper, says he doubts more than one in ten students have even heard Stock's name. But Koehler, who is in an interracial marriage and still occasionally receives Stock's screeds in the mail, says he is disappointed that the college continued soliciting and accepting money from Stock. Koehler remembers being recruited to play piano at a 1998 campus fundraiser where he was, to his chagrin, seated next to Stock. "Given our Christian mission to diversity, I was stunned to learn that we were still accepting money from Elroy even though we knew that he was still sending out hate mail," Koehler says. "I just find it bizarre that Augsburg was that desperate." All things considered, Koehler contends, it would have been best if the college had simply severed all associations with the donor. "I can even understand, logically, why Elroy is suing," he allows. "I don't think Augsburg came through on its end of the bargain."

Vivian Jenkins Nelson, a former Augsburg faculty member and the director of Inter-Race, a nonprofit think tank set up to encourage diversity education, believes Augsburg should return "every dime" Stock donated in the years following his exposure. After starting her career as one of Augsburg's first black administrators in the late Sixties, Jenkins Nelson, who is married to a white man, also received Stock's anonymous salvos. "I would get it at home, at work. It would follow me from job to job," she says of the letters, which popped up in her mailbox in 1975 and sporadically for the next 13 years. "Even though he never threatened me directly, it was scary, because I had no idea who was sending it." In 1988, after Stock was exposed, Jenkins Nelson sued him for intentional infliction of emotional harm; the case was settled out of court that same year, with Stock agreeing to pay $5,000 to the Minnesota Council of Non-Profits. (Jenkins Nelson also testified on behalf of West Publishing when Stock unsuccessfully sued his former employer to get his job back.) Stock has remained a curiously potent force in Jenkins Nelson's profession life. While at Harvard on a Bush Fellowship, she used the Stock case as a basis for research into the question of how colleges and other nonprofit institutions should deal with donations from suspect quarters. After interviewing fundraisers and administrators across the country, Jenkins Nelson says the consensus was clear: "Everybody said, 'Walk away; don't shake hands with the devil.'"

It's rare for colleges and universities to return suspect donations, but not unheard-of. One of the best-known examples involved a $20 million endowment to Yale University in 1995 from the conservative Texas billionaire Lee Bass. In that case, Bass had put strings on his donation, requiring the endowment be used only to fund a Western-civilization curriculum that faculty and students on the campus already regarded as adequate. "Sensitive donor situations are never easy. You take the information you have at your disposal, and eventually an institution has to take a stand," says Trish Jackson, vice president of the Council for Advancement in Support of Education, a D.C.-based nonprofit that provides fundraising advice to colleges and universities. More often than not, Jackson concedes, institutions will take the black eye and keep the cash in hand. As the old saying goes: "The only problem with tainted money is 'tain't never enough."

For her part, Jenkins Nelson believes Augsburg's decision to continue accepting money from Stock was wrong for reasons that go beyond bad publicity. In her view, Stock is not competent to give away his money. "Elroy has sent his letters to kids in hospitals, kids who are ill. Is that the behavior of somebody normal?" she asks rhetorically. "I don't think so. And when somebody demonstrates that they are impaired in some way--and this kind of hatred is a real impairment--I don't think we should be taking money from them." Ironically, in the wake of Stock's exposure, then-president Charles Anderson offered Jenkins Nelson a building on campus to house Inter-Race; it has been there ever since.

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