"It isn't a matter of dollars and cents, but of the principles of Lafayette. We wouldn't sell those principles for $140,000."
Thomas J. Watson Sr., Lafayette College Trustee
In January of 1950, America’s press lit up with indignation over a Lafayette College benefactor’s last will and testament. The dying wish of this Lafayette alumnus was to provide for his alma mater—as long as the money did not provide scholarships for Catholics, Jews, or a first-generation American. The college’s lawyer, after fumbling the initial press release, found a legal way around the will’s discriminatory provisions which the college president felt was also an ethical path: The president intended to put all proceeds into the general endowment fund which would avoid any discriminatory scholarship usage of the money—a legal, last-will-and-testament loophole.
While the proceeds were to have been used for general endowment, the fact remains that the legacy contains an inoperative clause discriminating against Jews and Catholics. The board has therefore taken action declining the legacy as containing intimations of discrimination which are contrary to the history, practice, and ideals of Lafayette College.
The board of trustees of Lafayette College overruled the president’s initial acceptance of the gift. Tom Watson and the other trustees successfully stated their case for a complete rejection as a matter of principle. A total sum of $140,000 brought to the forefront a nationwide discussion of issues we could still have today—seven decades later: This is a teaching moment involving legalism, pragmatism and principles in the area of religious bigotry.
This was a public stand and could be used as a current-issues, teachable event.
Dr. Hutchinson pointed out that the legacy directs that the proceeds of the estate are to be paid to the president of Lafayette College … to be used at his discretion for such purposes as may arise for the needs of the college.
On this authority, the president designated these funds, as they are received, for the general endowment of the college, an alternative use permitted by the terms of the legacy for the scholarships—creedal [religious] limitations have therefore not been elected and are inoperative.
He stated firmly, “Lafayette College welcomes men of all races and creeds and extends its services to all nations and nationalities.”
With the court’s initial allocation of funds from the estate, the trustees have had occasion for the first time to consider this generous bequest of approximately $140,000.
While the proceeds were to have been used for general endowment, the fact remains that the legacy contains an inoperative clause discriminating against Jews and Catholics. The board has therefore taken action declining the legacy as containing intimations of discrimination which are contrary to the history, practice, and ideals of Lafayette College. Lafayette’s enrollment has always included a large number of Jews and Catholics, and some of its most distinguished alumni are among them.
The result would have been the same … Mr. Watson [Thomas J. Watson Sr.] wanted to turn down the offer from the beginning--long before the Sunday broadcast. The only reason for the delay was that we decided to wait for the New York [Board of Trustees’] Meeting [on Tuesday].
Tom Watson had strong opinions about the proper stewardship of a college trustee position. On October 23, 1931, upon the occasion of the Centennial of the founding of Lafayette College and almost two decades before this incident, Tom Watson educated the student body on what he believed was his greatest obligation as one of their trustees. He told the assembled audience:
The faculty and trustees of Lafayette have many individual responsibilities and duties. . . . The greatest of which is to set, by precept and example, those high ideals which will govern and control the future thought and action of the students.