Private donors can help rural universities and their students (opinion)
In recent months I have read articles in Inside higher education and other media on the terrible toll that the pandemic, demographic shifts, and evolving public philosophies about the value of liberal arts and higher education have placed on colleges and universities. When I read that the sector had lost 650,000 jobs – and this is not the end of it – since the start of the pandemic, it got me thinking. And when I next read that Ithaca College, with an endowment of over $ 300 million and annual tuition fees exceeding $ 45,000, had to make drastic staff cuts, that hiatus turned into a need. to think about the future of the institution where I work.
This institution is a small, rural public university in the western foothills of Maine. Unlike Ithaca, we have an endowment of around $ 15 million and tuition fees of less than $ 10,000. I watch this university desperately trying to navigate a plethora of financial forces that point to inevitable decline and possibly extinction if they continue or even gain momentum.
The university has done a lot of smart things over the past 20 years to make itself more sustainable. We converted our central heating plant from an oil-fired system to a more sustainable, less carbon-emitting biomass plant, and we dug a series of geothermal wells. Our College of Education has remained strong and has added graduate programs to its offerings in order to continue to develop and support teachers in Maine. Our Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing further develops the minds and talents of many aspiring writers. Although we made a few mistakes along the way, both locally and at the system level, the university has continued to serve a vital purpose and has had a multitude of successes with the students it has graduated from.
Now we need to tackle a number of negative trends, some of which I mentioned at the start of this article. We have a relatively new administration, both in our institution and within the university system in general, which recognizes the problems we face and strives to resolve them. But while better governance has arrived, it has arrived without the resources to do anything other than downsize more staff and programs in a way that could make this excellent institution almost unrecognizable.
I am not part of the administration or the faculty, but I have been working here for 10 years and my job is to manage the technical aspects of our newer and more outward looking facilities. So, at least for now, I’m not particularly concerned with my job. Still, I joined the Staff Senate because I wanted to make a difference and I was concerned about the number of people who had lost their jobs during the decade that I’m here. I am not in finance or human resources. But in the many years of my career before I got to this wonderful place, I was in the business world and often around this time I had to lead various downsizing in several areas. I even spent time advising underperforming and underperforming companies. It gave me what I think is a distinct perspective on what’s going on at my university right now.
We have great faculty members, many of whom could be anywhere they want to be and are powerhouses in their fields. They have chosen not only to come here but also to stay there, despite the constraints of aging facilities and limited budgets, because they know they can make a real difference. In rural communities, where access to public education is difficult, regional public universities perform a vital function. Almost 50 percent of our students are first generation students from working-class families in Maine. Merely enrolling in college is often a challenge and an opportunity for them, especially when so many of them have more than one job and struggle to meet living expenses.
I am concerned, however, that the staff cuts here reach the point of diminishing returns in terms of the possible efficiency of the university. I’ve spent the last few years trying to understand his business model to determine if I can really help, and I recently remembered something: A few years ago, a generous donor partially endowed a chair with faculty on our system’s flagship campus for $ 1 million. That amount doesn’t fully pay for a faculty position there, and neither would it be at my university, but $ 2 million could, at least here.
The average labor cost (salary and benefits) for a faculty member at my institution is just over $ 100,000 per year. So a donation of $ 2 million would create one position for years to come, and $ 100 million would create 50 positions, while at the same time opening up $ 5 million a year in our budget to do all those things that need to happen. in a small university. With that kind of money, we could reinvest in our facilities; build a nest egg for the uncertain future; start new innovative programs; and better sell us to bring us those students who might believe that university is impossible for them.
Large donors seem to like to donate money to build large buildings and put their names on them. I’m sure my university would accept this kind of donation, but it’s the nuts and bolts of running a labor-intensive organization that are difficult. In an era of shrinking state-level resources and changing demographics within our student base, and with tuition fees frozen for much of the past decade, what we really need is this. is a sustainable working capital.
I didn’t win the lottery, and based on my ticket buying habits (and overall odds), it’s unlikely that I will ever do so. This means that my big idea depends on the generosity of others: people who have those kinds of resources and seem to be trying to make a difference.
For example, a group of philanthropists got together to take on the Giving Pledge, a group that has people like Warren Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates, and MacKenzie Scott among its members. They all seem to care about education and have donated billions of dollars to make a difference in the country and the world. Of course, $ 100 million is a lot of money, a fortune for a place like this. But put in perspective, making this kind of donation to a rural public university in each state would total around $ 5 billion. MacKenzie Scott donated $ 6 billion of his considerable wealth last year, and among that group they are probably giving exponentially more than that every year.
I have no way of reaching big philanthropists like MacKenzie Scott or the others involved in the Giving Pledge. You can search for them on Google and find webpages and sites, but there is no clear way to approach them. It makes sense that I didn’t have access to those kinds of possible resources, and it might be true that they would be overwhelmed with requests — cries for help, really. Nor do I represent the most needy of the most needy, or indeed anyone officially.
But if I could talk to Bills and Melinda, Warrens, MacKenzie and other Giving Pledgers around the world, I would suggest my big idea: Endowed Faculty Chairs is my name for it. It’s not as sexy as a large new building, but it is sustainable for generations to come, doesn’t incur the same long-term maintenance costs, and would be transformational. It is even scalable and could be provided to any number of the country’s 1,600 or so public universities.
Perhaps it seems naive to simply ask for money to maintain the brain confidence that our faculty represents. We should probably put in place donation warnings so that strapped states cannot use the money instead of public money and just put us back where we started or worse. Donation retention may also need to be tied in proportion to state credits at the flagship campus in question so that the money is not siphoned off. The idea is that rural public universities thrive, not just survive. And it can be done.
While I have been at my university for 10 years, my wife is retiring after more than 30 years. So, we’ve both seen countless examples of college students who have awakened their potential just by having the chance to be here, work their tails, and find their passion. We just want it to continue.