Spirit of St. Louis: For Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton, Growing the University Cache Means Building Cachet along the Way

By Angelo, Jean Marie | University Business, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Spirit of St. Louis: For Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton, Growing the University Cache Means Building Cachet along the Way


Angelo, Jean Marie, University Business


When it comes to capital campaigns, most college and university presidents today wish their own were as successful as those launched by Washington University in St. Louis (MO). In fact, the university's last two back-to-back capital campaigns raised twice as much money as was originally sought: In the 1980s, the school's goal of $300 million actually brought in $630 million. And during the past few years of the most recent campaign, a $750 million target has already been met, and the bar has since been raised to $1.5 billion. The current campaign wraps up this year, but as of end of March 2004, Wash U's endowment has swelled to $4.1 billion, thanks, reportedly, to contributions from corporations Like Anheuser-Busch and Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

Yet when Chancellor Mark Wrighton, 54, came on board in 1995, the endowment was only $1.7 billion. Known for an intense but unassuming personal style, Wrighton began his academic career as a chemistry professor and researcher, and along the way garnered patents in the fields of molecular electronics and photoelectrochemistry. A former provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is not a fundraiser by training, but has become one of higher education's most successful ones, nonetheless.

Though Wrighton has admitted he knew very little about Washington University in St. Louis before he was recruited for the top job, through his efforts and those of his staff, Washington University's academic strengths are now much better known. This year, the university ranks number nine (up from 20 in 1995) of U.S. News and World Report's Best National Universities-Doctoral--a spot that ties it with Dartmouth and is a prime indicator of the school's considerable research clout. Certainly, the heft of Wash U's endowment has gone a long way toward elevating the university to its current standing.

University Business: How did you grow your endowment 141 percent in nine years?

Wrighton: I was personally very fortunate in that the university was already undergoing a major planning exercise when I came on board. And planning proved very, very important, because in talking with potential donors, it wasn't Mark Wrighton conveying ideas. The board, a wide range of people, and I were presenting a development plan. Of course, the stock market gains of four years ago also helped to build the endowment. Washington University's investments, though, are managed by a separate team that answers to the stewardship of the Board of Trustees. I can't take credit for any of those investment decisions.

How was the growth plan created?

Each of Washington's eight schools developed its own plan under the guidance of what we called their National Councils. These councils worked with the academic leadership, faculty, and deans, and outlined goals and developed a plan for growth. This was done in the medical school, the business school, and the others. In all, 350 people were involved in the process. Each of these plans outlined how the schools could identify major opportunities and advance themselves, and therefore the university. We had three simply stated objectives: to attract and retain the most outstanding faculty; to recruit the most talented students and provide for them the best setting possible; and to identify areas where we could be in a leadership role in intellectual activity.

This process was underway when I arrived in 1995. One of the things you should do if you want to have a successful chancellorship is choose your predecessor carefully, and I was very fortunate in that Bill Danforth, my predecessor, encouraged the development of the councils.

Eventually, all of these plans became one Comprehensive Plan, which became our vision for the future. After the plan was approved, we executed a fundraising campaign. We went to major prospects with a welt-considered agenda. That inspired their confidence in us.

How did you segue from developing the plan, to raising the money to support it? …

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