Recruitment Rush: A Reliable Funder Doubles Down on Human Capital

The donor-led rush to attract top talent at the university level seems to be heating up.

The Pennsylvania-based Neubauer Family Foundation recently announced a $25 million gift to the University of Chicago to recruit top Ph.D. candidates in the humanities, physical sciences, and social sciences, and increase stipends for some students starting in the 2018-2019 academic year.

The foundation is run by Joseph Neubauer, chairman of the university's board of trustees and former chairman of the Philadelphia-based food service provider Aramark, and his wife, Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer, founder of the marketing firm J.P. Lerman & Co.

The gift comes shortly after Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen gave $50 million to the University of Washington's Computer Science and Engineering program to poach top talent from schools like Carnegie Mellon and MIT, among other things. Recruitment was also a key component of last year's $25 million gift from Bay Area philanthropists Bill and Susan Oberndorf to expand the University of California San Francisco's footprint in the field of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. And it figured in that $500 million gift to the University of California at San Francisco we covered not so long ago. 

Even politicians are getting into the act. Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently spearheaded a $9 million effort to lure a rockstar professor to Texas A&M University. Not everyone was happy about it.

Ultimately, these gifts suggest that with a litany of other causes vying for their attention, donors understand that world-class talent can be a critical competitive differentiator for the school's brand and, as arbitrary as it may seem, those ever-important national rankings. The Neubauer gift in particular also suggests the recruitment rush isn't solely relegated to the STEM field.

"The most direct way to change the world for the better is to invest in human capital," said Neubauer, a 1965 graduate of the university’s business school. "This gift is intended to enable the University of Chicago to recruit top academic talent at the Ph.D. level—future change agents who will graduate with both knowledge and purpose, intent on effecting substantive, lasting, positive improvement in their chosen fields."

Indeed, if there's one unmistakable trend underlying the Neubauer Foundation's recent gifts to the University of Chicago, it's a commitment to recruitment.

In 2014, the foundation gave the school $13 million in support of initiatives to reduce barriers that prevent international and Latino students from applying to and attending the university. And last year, it gave a $4 million gift to the school's Booth School of Business to establish a scholarship program for professionals working in the nonprofit and government sectors. 

Add it all up, and Neubauer and his wife have now contributed more than $125 million to the university, including founding the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society and numerous fellowship and endowed professorships for faculty.