Selling a Piece of the Rock
DR. ERNEST G. STILLMAN '08, one of the Harvard's biggest financial supporters in the middle of this century, was almost as eccentric as he was rich.
Although like other alums he bankrolled swimming pools, baseball cages, professorships and construction in the Yard, he devoted much of his life to silviculture, donating a forest, a museum and some $1.25 million to Harvard to encourage scholarship in the field.
In his last will and testament, released upon his death in 1949, Stillman instructed his caretakers "to have my remains cremated and the ashes scattered in Black Rock Forest, Orange County, New York." In the same document, he donated to the University the 3800-acre parcel of land that borders the Hudson River, along with a sizable endowment.
Thirty-four years later, Harvard began a campaign to sell the forest to a prominent New York environmentalist for $400,000, and to keep the endowment--which by then had grown to $2.5 million--to support another Harvard forest in Petersham, Mass.
Black Rock, located more than 200 miles farther away from Harvard than Petersham, was little used by students or faculty, who could conduct virtually all necessary research at Petersham. In addition, Black Rock costs some $25,000 to $30,000 a year to maintain.
Although the majority of the income from the Black Rock Trust Fund is now used for Petersham, under New York state law governing charitable trusts, Harvard must support the little-used Black Rock Forest for silviculture research. Harvard cannot invest heavily in the Petersham forest--and today, new funds for forestry are not readily available.
AT THE TIME OF the sale in August 1984, and right up to today, Harvard said Stillman intended the then-$1.2 million gift to support forestry at Harvard in general, and not specifically at Black Rock.
Harvard proceeded cautiously with the sale, unwilling to offend the family and friends or to violate the trust of a prominent donor. It secured a deal with a wealthy and respected philanthropist in New York, William T. Golden, who promised to use the forest for research and preserve Stillman's intentions.
But the deal, despite Golden's promise, was the subject of severe criticism from one member of the Stillman family, from New York environmentalists, from other Harvard alumni--and eventually from the New York Attorney General's office. Many said they feared Harvard was violating Stillman's intention.
Now, after a year of correspondence and compromise, the Attorney General's office is reportedly moving closer to supporting some deal for the sale of the Black Rock Forest. The office is a key party in arguing either for or against any such deal in the necessary court session for the dispensation of a charitable trust.
While an end to the ordeal does not seem immediate, the tensions between the various New York alumni and Harvard, two groups which are not natural enemies, have increased in anticipation. Any resolution to the problem will almost certainly leave some questions unanswered, and some parties dissatisfied.
A decision in Harvard's favor may prompt some counter court action by one New York group, while a decision unfavorable to the University may indefinitely delay the sale and cost Harvard thousands annually.
HARVARD'S MOST RECENT proposal, offered last spring after some compromise, is to sell the forest to Golden for $400,000. Golden would form an "educational consortium" of about a dozen schools to use the forest for research. Harvard would then leave that $400,000 in a permanent endowment to remain associated with Black Rock, but would keep the $2.5 million to support Petersham operations.
The Attorney General's office, which has received testimony from people on all sides of the issue and has claimed to honor the terms of the original charitable trust, late last summer proposed that Harvard leave a total of $900,000 with the forest, according to Pamela Mann, an assistant attorney general in charge of charitable trusts.
Harvard rejected that offer, instead saying that $400,000 is an adequate amount to maintain the forest for silviculture.
But since the summer, Mann said, "We think we are getting closer to a compromise position. The donor had clearly wanted there to be a stream of income for the forest, and we had to weigh that against Harvard taking the endowment. There is a cut-off point, but I don't know what it is. That's why we're trying to compromise. The parties disagree, but we are making some progress."
Vice President and General Counsel Daniel Steiner '54, Harvard's point man on Black Rock, said this week that he is still waiting for a new offer from Mann. In the past, he has said Harvard "is not inclined" to leave more than the $400,000 sale money with the forest, but he said he would consider any future offers.
"The discussions are basically in New York now. Harvard isn't actively involved anymore. We are letting them decide what proposals are feasible and sensible," Steiner said.
BUT THE FOUR New York groups involved with the Attorney General's office are not optimistic. They have said that anything less than $900,000 would violate Stillman's original intentions and fail to guarantee that the forest will be adequately maintained. The Golden sale does not guarantee a steady flow of funds, but relies on local educational institutions to pay to use the forest.
One of those groups, the Ernest G. Stillman Forest Committee, founded by New York freelance writer George W.S. Trow '63, suggests that some $2 million remain with the forest. Trow said the group would consider taking action against the University if an amount of money substantially less than that were secured.
So in the final analysis, any compromise which secures less than $900,000 for the forest would almost certainly raise the wrath of some of the environmentalists--and any compromise far from the present offer of $400,000 would likely be unacceptable to Harvard. Steiner, however, said Harvard would most likely not go to court over the sale if it doesn't receive the support of the Attorney General.
In the ongoing battle, the Attorney General's office has asked Harvard to produce evidence showing what Stillman intended when he gave the endowment and the forest. Harvard has claimed that the cash and the forest were separate, and has based much of its argument on correspondence with Stillman's elder son, Calvin W. Stillman '39, of New Jersey. Calvin Stillman, unlike his outspoken brother, has remained on the sidelines for most of the contest, according to Steiner.
Calvin Stillman said in a recent interview that he believes his father, who gave Harvard cash gifts throughout his adult life, was unsure whether Harvard would even accept Black Rock, an "unproductive forest." As a result, he arranged to give the forest only after his death.
He said the gift of the land was separate in time and place from the many cash gifts that Ernest Stillman gave to Harvard, Calvin Stillman also said that while his father was living, he emphasized gifts to the Harvard Forest at Petersham, rather than the Black Rock Forest.
But John S. Stillman '40, a New York lawyer, disagrees. He says that its father's main interest was Black Rock, and that Ernest Stillman would be "very upset" to find that Harvard wants to violate that trust.
Joel Graber, an assistant attorney general who handled the Black Rock case before Mann, said he has found no conclusive evidence to back either the claims of either of the brothers. As a result, Graber said, the office is now just trying to reach a reasonable settlement based on inconclusive evidence about what Ernest Stillman really wanted. Graber also said the office is soliciting advice from New York residents about what it would take to maintain the forest.
Over the last year, four New York parties, the Scenic Hudson, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, the Stillman Forest Committee and John Stillman, have urged the State Attorney General not to allow the Harvard to leave the forest without a permanent endowment, a measure not specified in the sale to Golden.
In the words of one Harvard alumnus who asked to remain anonymous, the Golden proposal relied on local educational institutions to preserve silviculture at Black Rock and he called such an "unsure financial and philosophical grounding" for the forest "totally unacceptable."
George Gowen, chairman of the Scenic Hudson, said, "There is so much tangible evidence that Stillman wanted his money to be used primarily for Black Rock. I am satisfied the documents show that the forest and the endowment went hand in hand."
Gowen said that unless the practice of silviculture and the maintenance money available from Stillman's Black Rock Trust Fund could be assured by Golden, then Harvard would be shirking its responsibility.
"We all have some responsibility in actuality and in metaphor for the preservation of silviculture. It seems highly unlikely that any work capable of sustaining the continuity of silviculture which interests us could go on without substantially more money than Harvard has offered," agreed Trow, head of the Stillman Forest Committee.
"Basically Harvard and the state might quibble over the size, but I am pleased that the principle has been accepted. A trust fund must remain with the forest. It's Harvard's obligation," said John Stillman. "We're not asking that Harvard leave the whole endowment with the forest, but now there is certainly no chance of them taking it all."
But, according to Trow, maintenance of the forest for silviculture requires much more. "The Harvard figure is very low. The endowment stood at $1.2 million in 1950, and now it's only at $2.5 million [while the rest of Harvard's endowment has grown more than 800 percent]. It has not kept pace with the market, and it appears that Harvard has used some of that money for other purposes,' Trow said.
The possibility that Harvard has been siphoning money from the Stillman endowment, Trow said, means that the needs of Black Rock have to be considered from scratch. Trow's committee prepared a 35-page report analyzing the forest's financial needs, and determined that a multi-million-dollar endowment would be necessary to do justice to Ernest Stillman's original wishes.
Calvin Stillman sees the situation differently: "These people, including my brother, want the land there for their own use, but they don't have a strong rational basis for forcing Harvard to maintain it. If my father were alive now, he would sympathize with Harvard," he said, referring to what he called his father's belief Black Rock was useless to the University.
"If they wanted to, there is nothing to keep Harvard from selling the forest outright. They can sell it for lumber if anyone were foolish enough to buy it," Calvin Stillman said.
John Stillman said his brother was never interested in Black Rock, and didn't appreciate how much his father valued the New York forest. He said Calvin Stillman spent more time in Petersham, and is naturally more interested in maintaining that operation.
Although Mann is optimistic that some compromise can be reached, the larger issue of Harvard's responsibility to its donors has caused strains with some alumni and prominent groups in New York.
Steiner said he still believes some deal can be worked out between Harvard and those who oppose the sale. And even John Stillman is confident that Harvard's intention to leave the $400,000 indicates that Harvard could be persuaded to leave more. Still, given the vast difference of opinion, it appears impossible that both sides will walk away happy from the Black Rock Forest battle