If you’ve been inside Weill Hall, the new home of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, you’ve seen firsthand the effect of private donors at the University. This, plus thousands of other projects, scholarships, professorships and improvements on campus, was made possible by the University’s latest fundraising push: the Michigan Difference campaign. While this campaign was both successful and commendable, it is important to remember that in such an unstable economy, the University can’t afford to rely on private donations. Though donors have stepped up, it’s time for the state to do the same.
When the University launched the Michigan Difference campaign in 2004, it set a lofty goal: raise $2.5 billion in four years. With roughly a month and a half left until the campaign ends on Dec. 31, that goal has long since been shattered. As of Nov. 14, private donors have contributed more than $3.1 billion to the campaign, making it the most lucrative fundraising campaign in history by an American public university.
On campus, the signs of this push have been noticeable. Among other things, the money has paid for a massive addition and renovation to the University of Michigan Museum of Art, a new home for the Ross School of Business and 20 other campus construction projects. In addition, it has financed almost 2,000 new scholarships, 185 new endowed professorships and an impressive collection of research projects.
But while the generosity of private donors is impressive, it raises several concerns. First, almost all of the cash raised during the Michigan Difference campaign was earmarked for specific projects. While this allows donors to fund projects they deem necessary, a flexibility that encourages some people to contribute, it also prevents money from going to necessary but often overlooked projects. As the University begins planning its next fundraising campaign, encouraging donors to contribute to the general fund should be a priority.
Another problem with private donations is tied to the state’s problems. Though successful private fundraising campaigns help the University make it through times when the state is slashing its funding, the success of these campaigns also provides the state with an excuse to continue its neglect — if the state doesn’t do its job, some alumni somewhere will pick up the slack.
Regardless of the outstanding charity of private donors, the University of Michigan is still a public institution. That means that it should be depending on the state for much of its funding. Just because the University has been lucky enough to receive such remarkable donations doesn’t release the state from its funding obligations. Michigan’s state legislature should know that, and the University needs to constantly remind it of that.
If the University cannot afford to keep the doors of Angell Hall open, it cannot turn out the highly skilled workers that will make a new Michigan economy possible. Private donors have shown their commitment to keeping the University thriving. The state should do the same.