Filling the gap
Private philanthropists should focus on underfunded academic programs and financial aid when making donations
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported Sunday that in 2010 nearly half of the donations of $5 million or more made by the nation's 50 most prolific donors went to institutions of higher education. This reflected a reality that has become increasingly evident at the University in recent years. With public funding of higher education dwindling - the share of the University's Academic Division operating budget covered by the state declined from 15.8 percent during the 2002-03 academic year to only 10.3 percent this year - private philanthropy has become a crucial source of support for large-scale projects.
Yet as vital as these gifts have been to maintaining the University's prestige and promoting its academic evolution, not all areas have enjoyed equal levels of support. In particular, smaller academic departments in fields such as foreign language, as well as the University's AccessUVA financial aid program, have been overlooked by many prominent donors. Considering the University's commitment to a diverse educational experience that is open and inviting to all, donors should focus on these areas when they dispense their largesse in the future.
The potential of targeted private donations to bring about progress can be seen in three of the University's most recent initiatives. The construction of Robertson Hall, which was completed in 2008 and now houses the Commerce School, benefited from a $22 million donation by John Griffin; the Education School's Bavaro Hall, which opened last summer, was built with the help of a $22 million donation by Daniel Myers; and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, which graduated its first class of students in 2009, was made possible by a $100 million donation from its eponymous benefactor. Each of these projects has contributed to the University's institutional character and has offered new opportunities to students and faculty through improved classroom technology, increased office space and new degree programs.
Others at the University may feel removed from such positive change, however. Many students were dismayed, for example, when the Spanish department suspended its minor in 2008 because it was unable to hire enough staff to keep up with increasing student demand. Gustavo Pellon, the Spanish department's director of undergraduate studies, did not encourage optimism when he told The Cavalier Daily last fall, "We'll study the matter after two years to see if we can afford it, but it's extremely unlikely that we'll have the minor again." With department budgets remaining tight because of state funding cuts, significant private donations can help such programs expand in accordance with the needs of the student body.
Even more disappointing has been the lack of private funding for AccessUVA, which was initiated in 2004 to meet 100 percent of the need-based financial assistance requested by University students. As of early last year, the University only had obtained about $2 million in contributions for the program, which is less than 10 percent of what was given by individual donors for the construction of the new Commerce School and Education School buildings. If AccessUVA is to reach its $200 million endowment goal by 2020, then private donors will need to be substantially more generous toward the program in the coming years.
Although many donors from wealthy backgrounds and with degrees in traditional fields such as business and politics may not feel as connected to financial aid initiatives such as AccessUVA and academic programs such as the Spanish minor, they must recognize such programs are crucial to the University's success. To attract a unique and talented student body, the University must offer resources and opportunities that appeal to a variety of individuals. Broad-based funding for academia and a strong commitment to tuition assistance will make this possible, but only with support from the donors who have played such a large part in the University's recent development.