Education

Iowa Wesleyan won't return donor's gift, despite sitting idle for years

AG: School can return donation, which can't be used as stipulated

Scott Humphrey (Supplied photo)
Scott Humphrey (Supplied photo)
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Seeking to memorialize his late father, an Illinois man gave thousands of dollars to Iowa Wesleyan University to use for golf scholarships. But the small Mount Pleasant school stopped using the endowment for that, and the man has been trying to get back his gift.

The university, which just two years ago was fast running out of money and was on the precipice of closing, refuses.

Scott Humphrey, 49, of Glencoe, Ill., made an initial $26,250 donation to the private school in 2007 in memory of his father, who died April 9, 2006, in Cedar Rapids. The gift — which the Humphrey family later increased to $45,000 — established the “C.E. ‘Bud’ Humphrey Memorial Endowed Scholarship.”

An agreement stipulated the endowment would generate scholarships for students on the Wesleyan golf team, among other criteria.

But five years later, Wesleyan began transitioning from a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics conference to an NCAA Division III non-scholarship conference — making the Humphrey family’s wishes impossible.

The school, though, never told the Humphreys. The family remains unclear about what Wesleyan has done with the money.

Wesleyan announced in late 2018 it might close immediately unless it found $2.1 million to carry it through the spring.

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The school survived and is more stable after appealing for donations and collaborating with lenders. But with donors stepping up, the Humphreys’ questions are especially poignant across all higher education, which has become increasingly reliant on philanthropy.

“It seems we’re at a bit of a standoff,” Humphrey wrote in a Feb. 6 email to Wesleyan President Chris Plunkett. “You can’t spend the money we donated as you can’t honor our agreement and intent. Additionally, IW has bungled, repeatedly, this entire episode which leads me to question the leadership and, quite possibly, the viability of the college.”

Humphrey, in that email, reiterated his request to have the money either returned or redirected to another charity — a veterans job training center in Chicago.

When asked for comment from The Gazette, a spokeswoman for the four-year liberal arts college last week said the gift is part of Wesleyan’s endowment, and “endowments are considered charitable trusts for the public good.”

That puts them under the auspices of the state’s Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, which Wesleyan Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Meg Richtman said “does not allow for the return of the gift to the donor.”

Wesleyan, she said, is willing to petition the Iowa Attorney General’s Office “to attempt to secure authorization to return the gift” and has provided a cost estimate to Humphrey.

“To date, Mr. Humphrey has not authorized Iowa Wesleyan to proceed with this option.”

Humphrey said Wesleyan gave “only vague references to ‘several thousands of dollars.’”

Regardless, the Attorney General’s Office on Friday told The Gazette a petition is unnecessary.

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“We have no objection to the university returning the gift to the donor, since the funds cannot be used for the purpose specified,” said Lynn Hicks, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office. “We have been contacted by an attorney representing Iowa Wesleyan, and we have informed her of that.”

But Wesleyan said he has not formally asked, saying Friday it “has not petitioned the attorney general as we have not received authorization from Mr. Humphrey to do so, given the potential legal fees associated.”

Hicks told The Gazette the school reached out to his office about the dispute for the first time last week. That’s more than two years after Humphrey first brought to Wesleyan questions about how the endowment was being used.

‘Isn’t any excuse’

For years, Humphrey got thank-you notes from Wesleyan students who had received scholarship support through his family’s endowment.

“I am extremely grateful that there are people like you who are willing to help college students like me,” one recipient wrote in January 2008, according to a letter provided to The Gazette.

On April 1, 2010, Wesleyan reported to Humphrey an endowment balance of $45,000 and said $1,750 in scholarships had been awarded in the 2009-10 term. The school also reported giving out $1,750 each of the previous two years.

But Humphrey said that 2010 update was the last he received.

The family created the scholarship to honor Bud Humphrey, who grew up in Atkins and in 1964 graduated from Wesleyan, where he served a stint as associate director of admissions and director of financial assistance and placement.

He was deployed in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and went on to a successful career as a health care executive — all the while being an avid golfer, assisting in junior golf programs.

“My dad grew up poor, he worked while he was at Iowa Wesleyan,” Humphrey said. “That helped him pay for school, and he didn’t have any debt when he graduated. He understood the plight of the less fortunate.”

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Realizing he hadn’t heard from anyone about the scholarship in years, Humphrey on Nov. 15, 2017, reached out to ask whether anything was left in the fund.

Jim Pedrick, major gifts officer for Wesleyan’s Office of University Advancement, responded. The institution stopped awarding the scholarship “because of our transition to NCAA Division III non-scholarship athletics,” he said.

“There isn’t any excuse for not informing you of this sooner and I apologize,” Pedrick wrote, suggesting Humphrey remove the requirement the recipient be on the golf team.

Humphrey asked for an update on the account and Pedrick said the balance was down to $43,600 but was expected to bounce back “given current market conditions.”

The advancement office reported four students had benefited from the scholarship since its creation. The total amount awarded had topped $11,000 — above what Humphrey had been told. The lack of communication — and the scholarship fund being been idle so long — prompted Humphrey to reject Pedrick’s request to amend its conditions.

He wanted it back.

‘Significant turnover’

While serving as the school’s vice president for finance in 2017, Plunkett apologized for the institution’s failure to communicate and blamed “significant turnover” in the University Advancement Office.

She said his fund had been “under water” for several years following the 2008 recession, but had bounced back. Humphrey has not received more clarity about those ebbs and flows.

In the back and forth of messages and calls, Humphrey said, then-Wesleyan President Steve Titus explained the law governing the return of the gift required a petition to the attorney general — and Wesleyan wasn’t going to pay for it.

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“I would have to fund 100 percent of the university’s costs to get my money back, which I rejected and suggested a 50/50 split,” Humphrey told The Gazette. “Titus said his board would not let him spend any more money or time on this matter and that I should just relinquish the restriction.”

About that time, Titus announced Wesleyan’s precarious financial position. He then retired, and Plunkett stepped in.

Humphrey, having heard nothing for months about the fund, reached back out in January to press her again.

Weeks passed without a response until Plunkett this month gave Humphrey the option of amending his scholarship restrictions to either benefit golf program expenses or provide merit scholarships for any students. She didn’t include returning the money as an option.

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.