Philanthropic Partnership and the Future of Public Universities

Philanthropic Partnership and the Future of Public Universities


May 28, 2015

As I have discussed in previous blog posts, investment in higher education is fundamental to creating economic prosperity and civic well-being in the 21st century. By educating future leaders, conducting research, and partnering with businesses and communities, public research universities like the University of Arizona have played a unique role in establishing higher education as a public good. States with higher levels of productivity and income have achieved those results partly by developing, retaining, and attracting a well-educated workforce, and public universities have a critical role in their success. When that synergy falters, the impact on the lives of workers and in the economies that shape our communities can be significant. Thus, while there is no substitute for state and federal investment in higher education, it is vital that we find ways to better leverage that public investment for improved outcomes in teaching, research, and public engagement for institutions like the UA. Philanthropic partnership is one important way that public universities can approach this goal, as the UA has done through its Arizona NOW campaign.

These partnerships have become increasingly important because over the past thirty years state support for higher education has fallen in several important categories. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, state appropriations for the UA as a share of overall revenue is down 20 percentage points since 1987. This is a drastic change, but even this statistic does not tell the entire story since a good portion of the revenue included is restricted to specific programs and not part of the University’s general fund. When those restrictions are accounted for the makeup of the UA’s revenue has shifted even more dramatically, with the share of general operating funds from state appropriations falling by 30 percent since 2008. Though some observers argue total spending from state and federal governments has increased over time, these claims do not account for inflation and per student spending, which is how most students feel state budget cuts.

Declining state support also has had considerable economic consequences. For instance, as reported in The Arizona Daily Star, average earnings in the Tucson metropolitan area are lower than the national average, which corresponds to a similar gap in educational attainment for the region. The correlation between educational attainment and earnings is not limited to Arizona: in 2013 the Economic Policy Institute argued that since 1970, the relationship between education and income has become more firmly established, a trend that will likely continue in the foreseeable future. Similarly, the National Governors Association projected that while 28% of Americans over 25 had a bachelor’s degree or more in 2010, by 2030 a bachelor’s degree will be the industry-based educational requirement for 41% of new jobs. These realities are why maintaining broad access to high quality education at public research universities is paramount not just for the students who earn degrees in these institutions, but for the communities they help to shape.

The Time for Reinvestment in Public Higher Education is Now

Reinvestment in higher education is vital, and that necessary investment cannot be borne by students alone. The University of Arizona and many other universities have made significant changes in cost structure and developed innovative new ways of doing business. However, even with these important changes that the UA and many public universities have made, to grow enrollment while maintaining quality and a successful research enterprise (which, along with other tangible benefits, means students learn at the frontiers of knowledge, enhancing workforce readiness), further investment is vital.

To sustain the deep public good that our society has come to expect from public universities, that investment must ultimately drive success in each institution’s mission. This is why the UA’s Arizona NOW campaign is closely aligned with the University’s Never Settle academic and business plan; the partnerships developed through the campaign leverage areas of historic and emerging strength to amplify the impact of the university, generate other sources of revenue, and create important outcomes for the state in workforce development, research income, and community partnership. Many of these investments have a transformational impact at the UA because they act as catalysts that help launch new programs and enable the pursuit of new sources of revenue that sustain the University’s mission.

The Arizona NOW Campaign: Enabling, Enhancing, and Expanding the UA’s Impact

The integration of the Arizona NOW campaign and the UA’s Never Settle plan means that the campaign’s success is measured as much in the mission outcomes it helps produce as the funding it generates.  For instance, the University has a long record of successful international partnerships in Latin America and in the Gulf Arab States. To build upon this record – both in these regions and in other parts of the world – the University is emphasizing the long-term stability of partnerships that enable the work of innovative faculty members, but which also run deep into the roots of each institution so that they last beyond a given faculty member’s tenure.

One way that this goal of long-term impact is achieved is through gifts that expand the UA’s effectiveness and reach in current areas of strength, providing sustenance for an even brighter future. A few examples:

  • In December 2014, Richard F. Caris made the incredibly generous gift of $20 million to support the University’s participation in the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) project. Mr. Caris’ gift ensures that the UA will remain a core partner in the GMT and that UA scientists have access to what will be the most advanced ground-based telescope in the world upon its completion. His support also leverages the University’s world-leading expertise in the construction of the lightweight and very large mirrors that are at the heart of the GMT, with $150 million in contracts coming to the University for the construction of the eight mirrors that will be used in the telescope. The University is able to take part in this partnership because of the leadership of its faculty, especially UA Regents’ Professor Roger P. Angel, director of the mirror lab, and with Mr. Caris’ gift the University is now positioned to continue its global leadership in astronomy and mirror construction for many years to come.
  • In 2014, Dr. Jim Wyant, professor emeritus and founding dean of the UA’s College of Optical Sciences, announced a challenge grant to support the Friends of Tucson Optics (FoTO) graduate student scholarship program. Dr. Wyant matched gifts from other donors at a 4 – to – 1 rate, giving $10 million alongside $2.5 million from over 270 other donors for a total of $12.5 million. With these endowed funds, the College of Optical Sciences will offer 27 new FoTO scholarships in addition to the 3 that were already in existence, providing tuition funding and a $20,000 stipend to first-year graduate students during what is often the most difficult year of study. Like Mr. Caris’ support, Dr. Wyant’s generosity is enabling the continuing prominence and leadership of an area of teaching and research critical to the future of the UA as well as the state of Arizona and the nation as a whole.
  • Agnese Nelms Haury, a longtime friend and supporter of the UA, left around $50 million to the University in her estate. With this gift, she enabled the establishment of a signature set of programs that are expanding the reach of UA strengths in environmental and arid lands studies, cultures and peoples of the U.S. Southwest and the Americas, social justice, and other vital areas of scholarship and teaching.  

Another way that philanthropic support enables long-term success is by catalyzing the UA’s pursuit of new areas of possibility that are key priorities in the Never Settle academic and business plan.

  • One exciting example is the $9 million gift from the Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation in 2014, which is allowing the UA to launch an innovative and much needed public veterinary medicine and surgical program to serve Arizona.
  • Another critical example is the $2.5 million matching gift pledge from the Thomas R. Brown Foundations, which helped launch the Catapult Corporation (Cat Corp) in 2014. Cat Corp is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation that partners closely with the UA’s Tech Launch Arizona to bring seed venture capital investment to support new start-up companies developed from the research of UA faculty and students. With these funds as a vital starting point, Cat Corp plans to grow an endowment that will fund around 50 new UA startups in the first 10 years. As these companies mature and the initial Cat Corp investments are liquidated, the first $4 million will go to the UA Foundation for future Cat Corp use. Additional funds will be distributed to Tech Launch Arizona for other commercialization opportunities (15%) and to the UA Foundation to fund other programs as designated by the initial donor (85%). More details can be found here.

The Vital Cumulative Impact of Annual Giving

The transformative impact of Arizona NOW takes place at the level of programs and colleges, as in the examples I have mentioned above, but also in the lives of individual students and faculty members. Every gift, no matter the size, contributes to the success of the campaign and has a positive impact on students and faculty. For instance, every year, tens of thousands of UA alumni, friends, and parents help support academic programs, scholarships, research projects, health science centers, arts and cultural programs, and more. In 2014, more than 33,000 supporters contributed over $33 million through the UA Foundation’s Annual Giving Office and annual giving programs around campus.

For instance, the UA’s THINK TANK runs tutoring, supplemental instruction, and academic study skill programs to help ensure that all UA students have the resources, skills, and opportunities they need to succeed. A gift of $500 to the Academic Skills Tutoring program at the THINK TANK allows more than 500 students to attend free workshops on topics like time management and exam preparation that support the University’s 100% Engagement goals by helping to promote student success.

Another example comes from the Honors College Dean’s Fund for Excellence. Through the Fund, annual gifts provide funding for UA Honors students to pursue life-changing engagement opportunities. A recent graduate, Stephanie Kha, was awarded an Honors scholarship to support her participation in a medical internship in Thailand. During the 5-week program she gained valuable hands-on experience in emergency room and other medical settings while also expanding her knowledge of Thai language and culture, deepening her ability to interact across societies. You can read her essay about the experience here.

Many other students have similar experiences in the UA Honors College because of support gained through annual giving. This academic year alone, $34,000 in Alumni Legacy Grants were awarded to support thesis research, career development, and professional development opportunities; 75 study abroad scholarships were awarded; and $52,000 in support allowed 37 students to participate in internships here in the U.S. and abroad. Annual gifts also benefit students in other colleges, faculty research and teaching initiatives, and other programs that make the UA the unique super land-grant resource it is. 

Though philanthropy cannot be a replacement for public investment, it is a means of leveraging and expanding the impact of public support. Through the integration of Arizona NOW and the Never Settle plan, the UA is helping to ensure that the public funding we receive is used to its fullest potential, and that it is a seed for further opportunities and outcomes. This approach honors our land-grant mission in the context of a new financial reality. But with philanthropic support, the UA is not standing still. Instead we are building on that historic mission to create the UA’s future as a super land-grant university that enriches the lives and improves the prospects of people around the world while serving our vital role in the state of Arizona.