A host of longtime donors to California’s Thacher School—a rarefied $64,000-a-year institution that gifts each freshman a horse—told The Daily Beast they plan to halt their largesse after an abuse scandal earlier this summer.
But it’s not the claims of systemic sexual abuse that have some of the school’s most prominent backers jumping ship.
Instead, the deep-pocketed players are furious over what they view as the unfair “scapegoating” of a former administrator after a slew of cases of alleged faculty and student sexual misconduct—and attendant cover-ups—was exposed in a scathing independent report commissioned by the school.
Some super-wealthy grads are now even threatening to cut the place out of their wills.
Billionaire Bill Oberndorf and his wife Susan were among the first to rise to the defense of Michael Mulligan, who spent three decades as the school’s dean of students and later headmaster before his retirement in 2018.
In July, the power couple’s foundation—which has donated more than $2 million to the school in the past decade—condemned the Thacher board’s decision to strip Mulligan and his wife’s names from a dining facility dedicated to the two educators just a few years ago.
“While the Oberndorf Foundation opposes sexual abuse and harassment of any kind, we also, as a matter of social justice, believe in due process,” the statement read, noting that the Oberndorfs’ own children had attended the coeducational school, and that Bill Oberndorf had served as a trustee. “After a careful review of recent events at Thacher, we believe Michael Mulligan has been denied this most fundamental right.”
A spokesman for the Oberndorfs declined to make his clients available for an interview, but told The Daily Beast that “you can assume that the family will no longer be supporting Thacher.”
When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Thacher School pointed The Daily Beast to a statement by the chairman of its board of trustees, in which he said effacing the Mulligans from the structure was one way for the school to take responsibility for its past.
“By taking this action, we stay true to the values Thacher aspires to as a school and as a community,” Dan Yih wrote in the missive from July. “Accountability, past and future, is key if we are to move forward. We owe those who were harmed while in Thacher’s care nothing less.”
But in interviews, several longtime donors echoed the Oberndorfs’ objections to the school’s response, reflecting intense loyalty to the Mulligans even as the MeToo movement continues to demand a reckoning on gender and sexual violence at elite institutions in America.
“To me, the Mulligans were the most special part of that entire school,” Lindsay Oliver, a 2008 graduate, told The Daily Beast. She said that she and her parents would be ending their financial support for the school as well.
The report into the school, compiled by the California law firm Munger, Tolles & Olsen, details sexual assault and harassment by a half-dozen teachers during a 30-year period. It also recounts cases of alleged attacks and abuses by pupils during the past half-century. Perhaps most disturbing, it describes how a former drama teacher repeatedly raped a student in the 1980s, beginning on a camping trip when she was just 16 years old.
However, the donors note, it includes no claims of misconduct against Mulligan himself.
Rather, the report chides what it outlines as a lax response to complaints of inappropriate behavior by others. Among other things, it found that the headmaster permitted accused students to complete their diplomas remotely, and allowed teachers fired for inappropriate relationships with students to access the school’s ranch-style campus north of Los Angeles.
Mulligan, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has expressed regret over some of his decisions at the institution. But he has maintained he was not fully aware at the time of the severity of several of the cases, and that he confronted, removed, and reported to police any students or staff accused of wrongdoing, including the professor accused of rape.
He and his defenders have also asserted the school did not let him access all his notes and files from the time of the allegations, several of which date back to the 1980s. This, they claim, led to inaccuracies in the accounting of the fiasco.
Further, donors argued that Mulligan’s mistakes were typical of the time—and do not negate the work he and his wife did for Thacher and its students.
“Michael Mulligan is a man of great integrity who devoted his professional career to creating a boarding school of the highest caliber with a positive and healthy culture,” Janice Day, a former Parent Association chair and trustee, told The Daily Beast. “All of the incidents were addressed or adjudicated by the rules in place at the time, which were consistent with current best practice. The sanctions imposed, while short of the current standards of 2021, were appropriate and often the maximum available to the school.”
Day, who said she and her husband had donated tens of thousands of dollars to Thacher, told The Daily Beast that no further gifts would be forthcoming—and that her husband planned to excise the school from his will.
Also planning to sever his support: Kingdom and Charlie’s Angels star Jonathan Tucker, a 2001 graduate of the intimate academy of roughly 250 students. Tucker told The Daily Beast he was surprised and disappointed over what he characterized as performative gestures and a lack of due process in its treatment of Mulligan.
It’s a sharp pivot from Tucker’s previous relationship with his alma mater: In the past, he has emceed fundraisers, founded a nonprofit to help prepare disadvantaged students to attend Thacher, and recruited on behalf of admissions. But that’s all over now, the thespian said.
“It’s hard to see how I can be a part of the school,” he said. “When meeting arguably its greatest challenge—reconciling with criminal sexual abuse, Thacher’s leadership did the very thing it cautioned us against: taking a path of convenience over courage, succumbing to emotion over reason, and doing an injustice by focusing on Mulligan as a scapegoat rather than on the victims and perpetrators. Unless the board knows something relevant not in the public domain, they’ve shortchanged the entire community, and, in this case, a couple that gave 30 years to the school.”
Like most of the former students The Daily Beast spoke with, Tucker described Mulligan and his wife Joy as the “engines” behind Thacher's rise to national prominence during their tenure and, more important, bastions of its values.
Even some with a multi-generational history at Thacher told The Daily Beast they now planned to pull those roots up.
Barrett Lewis said his great-grandfather began teaching at the school in 1908, and that his father worked as its business administrator and served on the board for 23 years. Today, his niece is the 29th person in his family to attend the school, and he personally has donated to the school every year since his graduation in 1989, he said.
But he vowed his generosity had come to an end.
“I think they were looking for a scapegoat, and Mike Mulligan was the scapegoat,” Lewis said, arguing that Thacher’s scandal was less severe than those that have recently surfaced at other top boarding schools such as Connecticut’s Choate Rosemary Hall and St. Paul’s in New Hampshire. The latter saga was previously at the center of a bombshell criminal trial that sent a former student to jail for sexual assault and exposed what prosecutors said was a culture of older students preying on younger girls.
Some experts defended the school’s response. Sam Dordulian, an L.A.-area lawyer specializing in sex abuse cases, argued that Mulligan’s alleged inaction contributed to the trauma of victims at Thacher. Effacing his name from the campus, the attorney asserted, was a way for the school to acknowledge that pain.
“When the institution continues to protect the accuser and not the survivor, there are years of psychological trauma they go through,” Dordulian said. “There’s some affirmation they’re looking for, and they’re looking for it from the institution.”
But it’s unclear whether the outrage and exit of donors will have any impact on Thacher’s decision-making, since they are unlikely to seriously endanger its finances. The school reported nearly $40 million in income in its 2020 disclosure to the Internal Revenue Service, and a whopping $303 million in assets.
In the meantime, the defecting donors and their families are seething.
“It’s not an institution I want to choose to support right now,” Oliver, the 2008 graduate, said. “It breaks my heart, because I never thought I would feel this way.”