Going even beyond the generous recent donations from Charles Munger, Penny Stamps and Helen Zell, Stephen Ross donated $200 million to the University this Wednesday. Ross is now the largest individual donor in school history with a total of $313 million gifted, and the funds will be split between the business school that bears his name and the Athletic Department. The donation will be used to renovate and build facilities for the business school, including study spaces for students and a career service office, and to expand scholarships for Business students. The Athletic Department will be developing spaces for its 31 teams, building new athletic stadiums and creating academic resources for athletes to succeed in the classroom.
Most importantly, the University community owes a serious debt of gratitude to Ross. As a private citizen, he has done more to advance higher education in recent years than the Michigan state legislature, whose job it is to support Michigan’s public universities.
Undoubtedly, this donation will be a huge benefit for business students and athletes. But Ross’s program-specific donation is part of a growing trend among donors of supporting already well-funded programs or initiatives that help a select few of a vast student body. Last year, the Athletic Department had a massive $124.5-million budget that went underutilized, as the department left $1.3 million on the table. The Business School budgets for about $26,000 for each of its students, compared to approximately $18,000 per LSA student. These programs’ wealth should not be held against them, but there needs to be focus on how donors can impact the greatest number and most vulnerable populations on campus.
Late last May, the University announced plans for the next major capital campaign. The development drive, to be chaired by Ross and launching this November, pinpointed the priority for all incoming funds as expanding financial aid for students. But considering the yearly tuition increases that create unimpressive socio-economic diversity by pricing out students from lower-income families, the expansion of financial aid is more than a priority — it’s a need.
During his successful campaign to the University’s Board of Regents, Regent Mark Bernstein proposed that a single-digit percentage of each donation the University receives should be set aside automatically for financial aid. That proposal should be policy. The University has a robust development office that meets the needs of each donor by designing individualized donation plans. But that office’s efforts must shift from nudging donors toward financial-aid donations to clearly articulating that financial aid is the number-one item the University needs in order to live up to its reputation as a leader in diversity.
Asking donors to broaden the impact of their funds isn’t unheard of: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has gifted more than $1.1 billion to Johns Hopkins University, with donations supporting a wide variety of campus needs. According to The New York Times, Bloomberg’s contributions include not only a school of public health, a stem-cell research initiative and library expansions, but also “20 percent of need-based financial aid grants.” The University’s donors need to be encouraged to follow Bloomberg’s model and look at the core missions of the school.
The University should rightly be proud of the business school and the University athletic program — the students and staff involved are our friends and peers — and of the fact that the school inspires passion like Ross routinely displays. But moving forward, building the best Michigan means supporting diversity, and that means supporting financial aid for the widest array of students.