Jacques: Hillsdale College receives $4.6M after it sues Mizzou for ignoring donor's wishes

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Months before Sherlock Hibbs died in 2002 at the age of 98, he drafted his will, laying out his wish to invest in the economic principles that had shaped his life.

Hibbs’ success in finance had introduced him to the Austrian economists — and as his legacy, he hoped to leave new generations with the knowledge that had influenced him. 

Prior to embarking on a business career in New York City, Hibbs graduated from the University of Missouri in 1926. He then joined the Navy in early 1942, and during World War II, he fought in North Africa, Italy, France and the Pacific. He was awarded the Bronze Star. 

Sherlock Hibbs during his service in the Navy

Hibbs didn’t have children, so in his will, he left millions to three Midwest colleges, including his alma mater, the University of Missouri, and Michigan’s Hillsdale College — a small liberal arts school that has achieved renown in part for eschewing government funding (Hillsdale is my alma mater). 

Many years after Hibbs’ death, those two schools became entwined in a legal battle that found resolution this week. The case raises many questions about how a university — or any institution for that matter — honors (or doesn’t) the intent of a donor’s gift. 

In Hibbs’ case, Mizzou accepted the $5 million gift from him, and then never honored the terms. 

Here’s the background: In Hibbs’ will, he wanted his alma mater to create six endowed chairs and professorships in its business school with the express purpose of promoting a specific ideology.  

According to the lawsuit, “The Will also required that each appointee to a Chair and Distinguished Professorship be a dedicated and articulate disciple of the Ludwig von Mises Austrian School of Economics.”

There’s not much room for misunderstanding there. 

Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Mich.

Mises, who died in 1973, advocated for free markets and the central role of the entrepreneur — and he warned against socialism and government intervention. His message is more important today than ever. Friedrich Hayek was another famous proponent of the Austrian school.

But administrators at the university resented having to adhere to this “school of conservative economic thought” and while they filled the positions, the professors were by no means the disciples Hibbs’ envisioned. 

This is where Hillsdale College comes in. Hibbs intended to give money to Hillsdale, and knew the college was a proponent of Austrian economics (Ludwig von Mises gifted his personal library to Hillsdale, and it’s located in a beautiful room in the campus library). 

Hibbs, realizing that the University of Missouri may not follow through with his wishes, had stipulated the university check in with Hillsdale every four years as to how the money was being spent. If Mizzou wasn’t honoring the terms, the funding would revert to Hillsdale. Hillsdale didn’t really want to play watchdog, but President Larry Arnn respected Hibbs’ request and agreed. 

When it became obvious to Hillsdale that Mizzou was neglecting Hibbs’ intent, the college sued. Administrators, including a university provost who said he didn’t want the university being “held hostage by a particular ideology,” were called out in the lawsuit:

“These same individuals, not one of whom was a trustee of any purported trust involving the bequest, then concealed their conduct from the University’s Board of Curators, from the professors they appointed to the positions funded by the bequest, and from Hillsdale. Worse still, they pressured those professors to falsely certify to the Board of Curators and to Hillsdale — repeatedly — that the University had complied with the condition of the Hibbs’ bequest.”

Several years later, the two institutions have reached a settlement. 

The agreement calls for Hillsdale to receive $4.6 million — 50% of what remains in the Mizzou trust, and almost the full amount of the original grant. 

“They aren’t very good at teaching Austrian economics, but they are pretty good at investing,” says Peter Herzog, St. Louis-based lead trial counsel for Hillsdale. “Mr. Hibbs’ legacy will be upheld at Hillsdale. Fortunately, Mr. Hibbs was wise to set up his own enforcement mechanism and found an institution ready, willing and committed to ensure that his donor intent was honored. It is imperative for institutions and donors to know and understand one another so that intent is very clear.”

Jay Nixon, a Democrat and former governor of Missouri, is also representing Hillsdale in the suit. 

With its remaining funds, the University of Missouri has promised it will hold a symposium every two years dedicated to Austrian economics, for a total of $15,000 for each event. Other funds will go toward economists who support a free and open economy. 

While Hibbs would no doubt be disappointed with how his alma mater treated his generosity, he would be pleased that Hillsdale stepped up to defend his legacy. 

Ivan Pongracic, a professor of economics at Hillsdale, is also the William E. Hibbs/Ludwig von Mises chair of economics. His gratitude toward Hibbs, as well as the economic values they share, is evident. 

“As far as I'm concerned, Mises was the greatest economist of the 20th century, and his ideas have had a profound influence on my own thinking,” Pongracic told me in an email. “I'm also confident that they will continue to rise in acceptance and impact in the wider profession. I'm grateful to Mr. Sherlock Hibbs for recognizing that and endowing this chair to promote educating our students about Mises' many insightful contributions to economic thought as well as achieving greater general economic literacy.”

I have a feeling that’s exactly what Sherlock Hibbs had in mind. 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques