The Slatest

University of Alabama to Return $21.5 Million Gift After Donor Criticized State’s Abortion Law

The quad at the University of Alabama.
The University of Alabama’s campus in Tuscaloosa.
Molly Olmstead

The University of Alabama’s board of trustees voted to return a recent $21.5 million gift from the university’s largest donor after the philanthropist called on students to boycott the school over the state’s severe abortion ban, local media reported Friday.

The vote wrapped up a two-week conflict between the university and Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr., a 70-year-old Florida real estate investor and lawyer whose pledge in September to donate a record $26.5 million led the university to praise this generosity publicly and rename its law school after him; it has been the “Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr. School of Law” since last fall. He has already given $21 million, which the university will now return, and the school’s name will revert to the University of Alabama School of Law. Friday afternoon, the university removed Culverhouse’s name from display.

The university system has denied that its decision is a response to Culverhouse’s comments, citing a longer-running dispute that, it said, involved the philanthropist wanting to dictate the terms of his donation and in other ways meddle in university affairs. (It also claimed the university chancellor decided to recommend the board of trustees return the donation the day before Culverhouse called for a boycott.) A spokesperson for the university system told AL.com that Culverhouse had asked the school to return a $10 million donation, “repeating numerous demands about the operations of the University of Alabama School of Law.”

Culverhouse acknowledged to the Associated Press that he did tell the university’s president that he wanted terms for his money: He asked his donation to go toward the acceptance of more law students and scholarships for those students. But he also argued that the issue had been resolved.

He also called the board of trustees “liars,” according to the AP. Last week, Culverhouse publicly called on students to boycott the university and the state as a whole in protest of the abortion ban. The university’s announcement that it was considering returning the donation came only hours later. Culverhouse said he did not doubt that the donation’s return was retaliation.

But Culverhouse has stood by his call for the boycott. “I don’t want anybody to go to that law school, especially women, until the state gets its act together,” he told the AP.

The Culverhouse name is an important one at the university. Hugh Culverhouse Sr.—who attended Alabama (his son did not)—owned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was also a donor, and is the namesake for its business school. Prior to the recent law school gift, Hugh Culverhouse Jr. had already donated more than $30 million to the university, including $2.25 million to the women’s golf team.

The younger Culverhouse has said he considers himself an independent and donates to both political parties. But his (and his father’s) support of reproductive rights has been constant, and Culverhouse Sr. was on the board of Planned Parenthood in Jacksonville in the 1950s.

The state’s new abortion ban, passed in May, is the strictest in the nation. It was crafted as a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, with the goal of being appealed up to the Supreme Court, and it bans abortion at any point, with exceptions only for medical emergencies—but not in cases of rape and incest. Under the law, doctors could be punished for up to 99 years in prison for performing the procedure. However, the law will not go into effect until November, and it is already being challenged by the ACLU of Alabama and Planned Parenthood Southeast in court, where it could be struck down as unconstitutional before it goes into effect.

Culverhouse told AL.com that he believed the state set a bad example for the university’s law students by passing a law they knew to be unconstitutional. “You probably shouldn’t put a living person’s name on a building,” he told the AP. “Because at some point they might get fed up and start talking.”