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President’s Perspective: Campaign Dissonance
President’s Perspective: Campaign Dissonance

Are educational institutions tone-deaf when it comes to financial matters?

By John Lippincott




At a recent meeting of the heads of U.S.-based higher education associations, Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik warned that some colleges and universities can be tone-deaf when it comes to their own wealth. As examples, he cited the subsidized loans a large private university offered senior staff members to purchase summer homes, the questionable travel a college president expensed to his public institution, and the recently launched $6.5 billion fundraising campaign at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

When we are accused of being indifferent to public concerns about college costs and our financial stewardship, it is wise to listen—and reflect. Jaschik's talk led me to reconsider my response to an online opinion piece about Harvard's campaign. The columnist complained that Harvard was being subsidized by U.S. taxpayers through the charitable tax deduction and suggested that Harvard was somehow unworthy of philanthropic support. I felt compelled to reply, both to defend the deduction and to defend Harvard's campaign.

I argued that "Harvard will, in all likelihood, meet its campaign goal precisely because lots of smart people see Harvard as a smart investment of their philanthropic dollars." And I stand by that argument.

Nonetheless, I take Jaschik's point that we are unlikely to overcome public concerns about institutional wealth based solely on the merits of our arguments. The concerns about subsidized loans and luxury travel will not be assuaged by the business case for those expenditures.

Failure to communicate

We signal that we are out of touch when we dismiss such issues as communication problems. While some may be the result of errors of commission or omission by communicators, many are problems of policy, attitude, and behavior. And many more are problems of perception.

To understand the perception problem, we need to consider the backdrop against which the public views stories about generous university compensation packages, lucrative contracts for football broadcasts, high-end amenities for residential students, and other manifestations of institutional wealth.

During the last two decades in the United States, increases in college tuition have outstripped the rate of inflation and, to an even greater degree, the growth in family incomes. Student loan debt has soared and now exceeds the amount owed on credit cards and auto loans. Around the world, universities are increasing the financial burden on students and their families, even as they plead the case for more government funding.

I understand that cuts in government support have been a major driver of tuition increases at publicly funded institutions. I know that the cost of a quality higher education and the price of ensuring broad access continue to escalate. And yes, I get that most institutions do not enjoy huge endowments.

However, most people outside our ivy-covered walls don't get any of this. All they get is the cognitive dissonance of our arguments for tuition and tax increases amid our announcements of billion-dollar campaigns.

Inviting the wrong questions

That leads us back to the campaign at Harvard or, for that matter, at the University of California, Berkeley or Oxford University in the U.K. Multibillion-dollar campaigns are marvelous indicators of the value offered by universities to students and society and wonderful reminders of a laudable and long-standing tradition of philanthropic support for higher education. Nonetheless, they present serious problems of perception and communication.

I am often asked by reporters and others, "Why does Harvard need the money?" or "Aren't other institutions more deserving of the money?" or "Aren't huge endowments obscene?" And my response is that these are the wrong questions. The right questions are, "Why do students, faculty, researchers, projects, and programs need the money?" or "What good will be accomplished with these funds?" or "What obligation do universities have to future generations?"

It's difficult to get to the right questions when we often invite the wrong ones. We invite the wrong questions when we label, describe, promote, and celebrate fundraising campaigns with an emphasis on the financial goal. We invite the wrong questions when we tout mega-gifts as the largest ever within a given category. We invite the wrong questions when we stretch the value of a gift in kind, the duration of a pledge, or the definition of alumni giving. We invite the wrong questions when we imply that fundraising is a competitive sport in which the school with the most money wins.

Granted, reporters and editors look for controversy. That's their job. And our job—as fundraisers, communicators, marketers, and alumni relations professionals—is to advance education. The fundraising campaign is a means toward that end, not an end in and of itself. Let's be sure we make that clear in all our communications; otherwise, the perception will remain that we are, indeed, tone-deaf.

About the Author John Lippincott John Lippincott

John Lippincott served as president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education from 2004 through 2015.

 

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