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Editor: D. A. Jeremy Telman
Valparaiso Univ. Law School

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

The $250 Million Gift that Wasn't

Centre_College_Athletics_LogoThe New York Times reports here that a $250 million gift, pledged to Centre College over the summer has now evaporated.

In July, Centre College announced that the A. Eugene Brockman Charitable Trust had pledged the largest gift in the history of small, liberal arts colleges.  The fund would be used to create 160 scholarships for students majoring in the natural sciences, computational sciences or dismal sciences (aka economics).  Eugene Brockman died in 1986, but his son, Robert T. Brockman attended Centre College and is now a principal in Reynolds & Reynolds, a car dealership support company.  

Earlier this week, Centre College announced that the gift had been withdrawn.  The gift was contingent, as it turns out, on "a significant capital market event."  The event was a $3.4 billion loan deal involving Reynolds & Reynolds.  The proceeds from the deal would go to Reynolds & Reynolds shareholders, including the Brockman Trust.  But the rating agencies did not like the deal and downgraded Reynolds & Reynolds.  As a result, no deal, no proceeds, no revenues to the Brockman Trust and then none to the College. 

For our purposes, there are two money quotes in the Times  coverage from Centre College's President John Roush.  First, “In retrospect, we might have put a big asterisk on this thing . . . ."  And second “We had a lot of people who have poured mountains of time into this . . . ."  

No doubt, Centre College would like to maintain its good relations with the Brockman Trust.  It has received money from the Trust in the past; it would like to continue to do so in the future.  But if there were a clean break, is the pledge enforceable?  

The answer may turn on where that astserisk should be.  Was there an asterisk attached to the gift or an asterisk attached to the announcement of the gift?  If Brockman made clear that its gift was contingent on the significant capital market event, then its pledge is not binding.  There was no promise.  But if the condition was not clear, there may still be a representation that one would reasonably expect to induce reliance and that apparently induced actual reliance when the Centre College people "poured mountains of time" into the gift.  Even the announcement of the gift, its purposes and its source, might be consideration, rendering the gift pledge enforceable (if there was indeed a promise), because the Trust got something of value (publicity) in exchange for its pledge.

One also wonders about other donors.  If the Brockman Charitable Trust pledge was used to attract other donors, those donors might now be experiencing donor's remorse. If the other donors now renege on their pledges, might the College have a cause of action against the Trust?

[JT]

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