Monday, June 20, 2011


The always-interesting Tenured Radical has a worthwhile post on the priorities that “development” (that is, fundraising) offices tend to have in higher ed. Her particular focus is high-profile athletics, and she asks the time-honored (and still valid) question of why development offices are much quicker to raise money for bigtime sports than for, say, English departments.

In the community college world that I know, half of her question doesn’t apply. The sports programs here are small, cheap, and low-profile; in budgetary terms, they’re negligible. No skyboxes or six-figure coaches’ salaries here. (For that matter, there’s no football team at all.)

But there is a development office, and there are serious budgetary challenges. Is it realistic to assume that we can offload faculty salaries onto “endowed” positions, and use the savings to plug the budgetary gap?

Um, no. Not by a long shot.

The first issue is legal; in my state, as in many others, community colleges are legally forbidden from carrying endowments. We work around that, to some degree, with a dedicated “foundation” that can set up endowments, but the foundation isn’t allowed by law to pay for operating expenses (that is, salaries) of the college. It mostly endows scholarships, and occasionally covers buildings or lab equipment. (Those are considered ‘capital,’ as opposed to ‘operating,’ so they’re fair game.) Scholarships are of great value to the students who receive them, but from the college’s perspective, they don’t help much. They probably reduce financial aid outlays somewhat, but we charge students less than the cost of educating them, so enabling more students to attend tends not to solve major financial issues.

Capital outlays certainly help. The foundation here has picked up the cost of some fairly expensive lab equipment that probably would have otherwise come out of general revenues. That’s welcome. And naming rights for buildings can generate significant donations that help defray the cost of their construction. These are to the good, but they don’t pay for faculty. It’s easier to raise money for a building than for the people who would work in it.

Even if the legal issue were lifted, though, there’d still be the issue of donor preference. Donors tend to respond to success, rather than to need, which is why philanthropy often results in the rich getting richer. They also have a strong preference for making a difference that they can see. That tends to favor conspicuous and name-able things, like buildings and scholarships, and tends to disfavor something as squishy as the operating budget.

There’s also a question of incentives. If donors started contributing to operating budgets in significant ways, I’ve got ten bucks that says that the state would cut our appropriation even faster than it already is, and would tell us to make up the difference with donors. In other words, rather than actually solving the problem, we’d dig a deeper long-term hole.

All of this, of course, assumes that donors’ preferences don’t do anything to influence academic decision-making. At this level, that has been true, but that’s because the funding remains at a safe remove from operations. Once they start covering operations, well, he who pays the piper will sometimes try to call the tune. Build whatever “Chinese walls” you want; over time, the force of economic gravity will work its will. It always does.

I’m trying to identify ways to use donor funding to offset certain operating cuts without ignoring the raw facts of visibility and difference-making. Some colleges have a “Center for Teaching Excellence” model, in which donor funding covers professional development funding -- travel grants, mostly -- for faculty. I’d like to get something like that running here. It wouldn’t make an overwhelming difference in the operating budget, since travel funding is thin to begin with, but it would at least insulate travel funding somewhat from the whims of the legislature.

These are sensitive issues, since nobody wants to disparage or discourage what are, at the end of the day, acts of voluntary generosity that do real good. But just as I don’t believe that we can reverse the adjunct trend just by yelling indignantly at administrators -- if that worked, it would have worked by now -- I don’t believe we can make fundamental changes in donor preferences just by telling the development office to drop the football fetish.