Gift benefits high-profile departments

By Sam Gringlas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 4, 2013

The Ross School of Business and the University Athletic Department are not first-time beneficiaries of real-estate mogul Stephen Ross.

Though many students expressed appreciation for Ross’s $200-million donation at a glitzy celebration Wednesday crowded with top University officials and students, others took to social media to question the choice of recipients — units of the University that some argue affect a small percentage of the school’s overall population or are already well-funded.

Justin Pope, a former Associated Press national education reporter who was once a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University, voiced disdain for Ross’s choice over Twitter, noting that the University should be embarrassed for accepting the gift when there are other programs with higher financial need.

In an interview Wednesday evening, Pope said universities have engaged in a “facilities-building arms race," in which institutions constantly try to outbuild one another. Ross's donation funds facility-building, and half of it goes to a part of the University that actually generates revenue, he pointed out. This is in contrast to other large donations such as Helen Zell's $50 million donation to improve the LSA Masters of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program earlier this year.

“I think the reaction on campus is going to be a little bit more complicated in some corners," Pope said.

The responses to Ross’s donation beg the question: How do donors decide where and how to give?

In an interview with The Michigan Daily last March, Jerry May, University vice president for development, said fundraising involves matching the University’s needs with the interests of potential donors.

Judy Malcolm, the Office of Development’s senior director of executive communications, added that the development process is not about convincing people to give in a certain area.

“We can’t go make someone be excited about scholarships when what they want to do is cure cancer or support research,” Malcolm said. “What we’re trying to do is present our dreams in the best way possible and then find people who really want to support students.”

Although the University has limited influence in changing a donor’s investment target, it has at times proven effective at encouraging potential donors to “up” their commitment. In 2004, Ross originally offered $50 million to the Business School in exchange for renaming it in his honor. Bob Dolan, then dean of the Business School, managed to negotiate an increase in the final donation to $100 million by articulating the school’s specific need for extensive physical renovations, which Ross independently verified with the school’s architect.

Pope, the former education reporter, acknowledged that the University can't realistically ask a donor to support a cause they're not passionate about. But, he said Ross’ donation puts administrators in an awkward position with other schools, colleges and programs that must be assured of their significance despite being less high-profile.

“U of M is right,” Pope said. “If this is what Stephen Ross is passionate about, then they have to work with him, but I think they might also have to communicate to the rest of the university community that they understand some of these other issues.”

Though Ross’s $200-million donation will endow some financial scholarships, a priority Coleman and other administrators have repeatedly emphasized for the next capital campaign, it will also fund upgrades at the Business School and athletic campus.

May said student scholarships and fellowships resonate with donors more than any other form of philanthropy.

“However, there are some donors that enjoy building beautiful learning environments and great facilities and, yes, we benefit from those donors who have that aspiration, who value learning spaces and important architectural spaces on a campus,” May said.

Last spring, University alum Charles Munger donated $110 million — the single largest gift in University history until Wednesday — for the construction of a graduate residence hall.

In an April interview with the Daily, Timothy Slottow, University executive vice president and chief financial officer, said these types of relationships leading up to a donation evolve over a number of years.

Munger had previously funded and supervised the construction of a graduate residence hall at Stanford University, fascinated by the challenge of creating an on-campus living community for graduate students.

His donation earlier this year joins Ross’s $200 million on the 2013 list of top contributors to universities and colleges, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Like Munger, many of Ross’s philanthropic counterparts have chosen specific academic units, schools or areas of the university governance when handing out the big bucks.

In January, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $350 million to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, where his donations exceed $1 billion. The $350 million to be used for cross-disciplinary education and financial aid. It will also endow 50 faculty appointments in the fields of global health and water resource sustainability, Forbes reported. It will also fund an estimated 2,600 need-based scholarships over the next decade.

Another real estate mogul, Mortimer Zuckerman, pledged $200 million to endow a Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia University, according to Forbes. In 2012, Phil Knight, the chairman of Nike, pledged $125 million to the Oregon Health Sciences University Cancer Institute at Oregon University.

In 2011, Raymond and Ruth Perelman donated $225 million to endow the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine as part of that school's capital campaign. Much of that money went to endowing professorships and providing financial aid, the University of Pennsylvania’s website stated. Mr. Perelman's wealth comes from the finance, manufacturing and mining industries.

The Knight and Perelman donations were also the largest in the history of their respective universities. None of the above donors placed restrictions on how their funds would be used.

Ross has maintained his foothold at the forefront of higher education philanthropy, in the company of donors like Bloomberg, Zuckerman, Knight and Perelman.

Although not unanimous in their applause, most at the University are grateful.

Managing News Editor Adam Rubenfire and Daily News Editor Peter Shahin contributed reporting.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misquoted Justin Pope regarding the purpose of the Ross donation.