Last week, the Zell Family Foundation made the largest single donation in the history of LSA. The $50 million gifted — the third largest donation in the history of the University — will go toward continuing the school’s prestigious Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing. While this massive investment will undoubtedly boost the program, the donation will also serve the University as a whole. This money will allow the University to continue to attract the best writers from around the world while cultivating liberal arts, an area that has been the target of funding cuts across the country. But as the University continues to receive large donations, it’s critical that the funds be directed towards not just programs and building renovations, but also financial aid to students.
In the past two decades, the University has been fortunate to see its massive endowment grow by almost 20 percent, one of the fastest rates for any university in the United States. This growth is due to a plethora of substantial donations allocated to various schools, departments and programs at the University. In 2004, Stephen M. Ross, a University alum and real estate mogul, donated $100 million to build the new Business School, while A. Alfred Taubman, another alum and developer, has donated more than $140 million in various ways, including a 2011 gift of $56 million for medical research. Considering the history of large donations from wealthy alumni, along with the potential for massive gifts from others down the road, the University will likely continue to receive huge checks for programs, departments and research.
The rising cost of tuition at the University has made financial aid more important in allowing for the best and most diverse groups of students on campus. The vast majority of large donations go to particular programs, funding the construction of new buildings, research, scholarships and teaching, among other areas. These donations are a great addition to the University. However, without financial aid that keeps up with tuition rate increases, fewer qualified and diverse groups of students will have access to these amazing facilities and instructors.
While campaigning for regent last fall, University Regent Mark Bernstein suggested creating a stipulation for all University donations, where a small percentage is required to go directly to financial aid. The University’s Board of Regents should work on moving this plan forward. By requiring a small percentage of a donation to go directly to aid — likely between 1 and 5 percent — the school would drastically increase funds for students in need of assistance. Expanding on Bernstein’s idea, the University could also add an option for a higher percentage of the donation to go to financial aid if the donor chooses. Not only would the school automatically increase its funds for deserving students, but donors who might not have considered giving to student aid would now be directing donations to an area that offers an incalculable benefit to campus.
Last week, University President Mary Sue Coleman said the University’s next capital campaign would redirect the school’s financial focus from renovations to providing financial relief to students through an increase in aid. This shift in attention is well-directed and much needed. While the outpouring of financial contributions continues to improve specific schools, programs and facilities that boost the University’s reputation, donors and the University should consider financial aid to be a priority when directing the use of funds.