by James A. Bacon
University fund-raisers are like presidential elections — as soon as one campaign ends, another one starts. Here in the Old Dominion, the University of Virginia is in the midst of a $5 billion boodle-building campaign. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is raising $1.5 billion, the College of William & Mary $1 billion, Virginia Commonwealth University $750 million, and George Mason University $500 million. That’s pretty serious dough. For purposes of comparison: Harvard, the wealthiest institution of higher education in the country (and probably the world), raised $9.6 billion in its last five-year campaign.
It never ceases to fascinate me how higher ed, which obsesses over issues of racial and socio-economic equity, has become such an engine of elitism. Donors get tax write-offs for their contributions, and public university endowments pay no taxes on income. (The 2017 federal tax law imposes a 1.4% excise tax on private-institution endowments worth $500,000 or more per student.) Here in Virginia, public university endowments also are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Sweet deal — tax breaks out the wazoo, and freedom from public scrutiny! All to benefit whom? Faculty, administrators and, disproportionately, the children of the well-to-do.
Not surprisingly, university administrators cast their pitches for mo’ money as benefiting students and the public — more financial aid, more enriching education, more research, and, of course, as UVa President James E. Ryan, puts it, a “fearless search for truth.”
You can’t spend $5 billion without doing some good for somebody. But it bothers me that almost no one ever pushes back. No one ever questions the fund-raising goals. No one asks if the money could be spent to better effect elsewhere. There are rare exceptions — listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, “My Little Hundred Million.” But you never hear such voices in Virginia. Continue reading