St. John's alumnus sues university, wants donation back plus interest

St. John's Abbey in Collegeville
St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn.
Matt Sepic | MPR News 2015

St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., is being sued by one of its own graduates who wants his donation back. Roger Lindmark, a 1974 grad, gave $300,000 to St. John's with settlement money he won from lawsuits against big corporations.

Lindmark wanted the money to fund two students each year to spend the summer researching and writing papers about corporate-business ethics. But Lindmark says that's not how the university used his money. (Disclaimer: MPR has a lease agreement with St. John's University, which is also a financial supporter of MPR.)

"The papers that were produced were on topics totally outside corporate-business ethics," Lindmark said. "One paper was done on soil conservation. Another was done on romance in the workplace. Another one was providing solar power energy to low-income families. Another paper was produced on wonderment in the classroom."

Lindmark started the Lindmark Endowment in 2004 with $50,000 in settlement money from a lawsuit he brought against American Express for overcharging consumers. In 2008, Lindmark was able to direct an additional $250,000 to the endowment from another lawsuit.

That money was able to generate enough money in interest to award two rising seniors $7,000 each year to spend the summer working on research related to corporate-business ethics. St. John's and Lindmark signed an agreement stipulating the endowment could also be used to bring guest lecturers to campus or buy books related to business ethics.

Lindmark says over the years he received a few thank-you notes from students who had been awarded the fellowship but wasn't told exactly what topics students were working on. He says he assumed the money was being used in accordance with his wishes.

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Then last fall, Lindmark asked St. John's for copies of the papers written by the 16 students who had been Lindmark Fellows. He said he received only 10 papers and just one was related to corporate-business ethics.

"The paper was supposed to be significant and substantive enough to be submitted to academic journals for publication or a student would use it for application to graduate schools or for employment purposes," Lindmark said. "But none of the papers turned out to be of any significant substance to be worthy of academic journals ... [and] for some odd reason the committee and the faculty were handing out these summer fellowships for topics that were essentially off the wall."

After reading the papers he received last fall, Lindmark said he contacted the St. John's president Michael Hemesath and asked to dissolve the endowment.

The university declined. Lindmark says he received a letter from the president saying the endowment was "irrevocable and unconditional," meaning the university was entitled to spend the endowment as it saw fit.

In May, St. John's University filed a petition in Stearns County asking the court to affirm that the university has used the endowment properly and that it may not be returned to Lindmark.

In an email to MPR, St. John's said:

"Saint John's University initiated action to resolve this matter, submitting a petition to Stearns County District Court seeking clarification and instructions. The University believes the Minnesota State Court properly has jurisdiction over this matter. After the University filed its petition, Mr. Lindmark initiated separate action in Federal Court. The University intends to move forward with its petition and will honor the instructions received from the Court."

In early June, Lindmark filed a lawsuit against the university in federal court. He's seeking to have his initial donation of $300,000 returned plus the interest the university earned on the endowment and the money it gave to students to work on projects not related to corporate-business ethics.

"One objective was to provide a fun summer experience for two students who would produce significant writing samples for grad school or employment," Lindmark said. "I imagine the students did have a lot of fun in the summertime ... but I don't believe the students received proper supervision, and the endowment wasn't managed correctly."