By Williams, David K.
Insight on the News , Vol. 11, No. 26
Alumni of America's 3,500 colleges and universities supported their alma maters at unprecedented levels in 1994, providing almost $3.5 billion. Those gifts took a variety of forms, from simply under-writing the annual operating costs of the institutions to endowing scholarships or building new facilities. At some schools, however, alumni gifts were restricted to tightly defined causes -- with unto-ward results.
Attaching ideological strings to a gift undermines the democratic nature of America's higher-education system. The $20 million offered to Yale University by alumnus Lee Bass in exchange for the establishment of a Western civilization curriculum -- and his subsequent request to select specific faculty to teach it -- is the most dramatic instance of such conditioned giving.
Colleges and universities endure a tempestuous relationship with restricted gifts. Increasingly, presidents and fundraisers are faced with squeamish decisions about whether accepting a gift compromises an institution's integrity.
Should Yale have allowed Bass to have a role in choosing faculty for the curriculum he wanted introduced? Should a Virginia institution have accepted a $1 million scholarship fund from which $50,000 would have been earmarked for the student finishing last in the class to serve a donor's vengeful ego for having earned poor grades?
For many strapped colleges and universities, especially those in the private sector, the answer is "yes." Without alumni giving, some of those colleges would have to reduce essential programs or drop less-popular programs or departments that aren't attractive to grant-making foundations.
At Ripon College in Wisconsin, alumni giving consistently accounts for more than 40 percent of philanthropic support. Individual giving to higher education continues to be the most important source of philanthropic dollars, far surpassing corporate and foundation contributions combined.
Keep in mind that no student pays the full cost of the degree he or she earns. State taxpayers subsidize publicly supported institutions and private donors help make up the difference at private schools. At institutions less well-endowed than Yale, endowment gifts such as the one offered by Bass would be a cause for celebration -- or a collective gulp if returned.
Unfortunately, restricted giving is on the rise nationwide. Fund-raisers are partly responsible; they seek to match the interest areas of donors with the needs of the college. Of the $3.5 billion in gifts to higher education last year, reports the Council for Aid to Education, more than 75 percent was restricted by the donor for specified programs. Corporate America has been leading that trend with what many corporate contribution managers describes as "self-serving philanthropy," such as giving to benefit the communities in which plants and offices are located or promoting research on products the corporation markets. The days of unrestricted corporate support of the liberal arts have gone the way of politically incorrect mascots.
But the role of alumni giving is an essential, perhaps pivotal, ingredient in the funding mix that keeps America's system of higher education the strongest and most sought after in the world. When Nobel Prizes are awarded each year, the majority of recipients have received their degrees from U.S. institutions. Ask any admissions dean how many foreign students are lined up for the limited number of positions, and the even more limited scholarship dollars, for international students.
The United States is both a nation of immigrants and a nation that has revered education for most of our 200-plus years -- precisely because we recognize the advantage it bestows. America's rich history of achievements in science, medicine, technology, literature and so many other fields is rooted in its higher-education system. And the nation's continued success is dependent upon the continued vitality of its colleges and universities. …