"What Makes Human Beings Human." A Higher Ed Fundraising Boom is Boosting the Liberal Arts



In a post about a big liberal arts gift to San Francisco State University, I wrote that the field has benefited mightily from the higher ed fundraising boom in which American colleges and universities raised a record $46.7 billion in 2018. The formula here is simple: An ambitious multi-billion-dollar campaign engages loyal patrons who rise to the challenge and dig deep for a transformational gift for the liberal arts.

A more recent example of this dynamic comes to us from the University of Oregon (UO), where alumni Phyllis and Andrew Berwick pledged $5 million to establish an endowed deanship at the School of Music and Dance. “This new funding will provide an unparalleled opportunity to launch ambitious faculty projects, showcase our spectacular student ensembles and grow our reputation as a world-class institution for the study and performance of music and dance,” said Sabrina Madison-Cannon, who is now the Phyllis and Andrew Berwick Dean of the School of Music and Dance.

Andy Berwick graduated with a business degree in 1955 and went on to build a highly successful career in real estate development as the founder of Berwick-Pacific Corporation in San Mateo, California. Phyllis Berwick earned her degree in early childhood education in 1956.

Their support for the UO-based Oregon Bach Festival dates back to 2005, and includes a 2005 gift of $1.7 million to endow the festival’s professional chorus and a $7 million gift in 2104 to establish the Berwick Academy. They made the lead gift for Berwick Hall, giving $6.5 million toward the construction of the 10,000-square-foot building, which opened beside the MarAbel B. Frohnmayer Music Building in 2017.

They also established the Richard C. Williams Endowed Student Leadership Fund, which supports programs, activities and scholarships in honor of the first director of the Erb Memorial Union, a mentor to Andy Berwick. The university has honored the Berwicks with several of its highest accolades, including the Pioneer Award in 2014 and the Oregon Bach Festival’s Saltzman Award, named for festival co-founder Royce Saltzman.

“There is No Finish Line”

Having covered one of the two key ingredients of the surge in support for liberal arts initiatives—loyal alumni donors—let’s now turn our attention to the second: the growing push by schools to raise increasingly vast sums of money. UO doesn’t disappoint in this regard.

In 2014, the school rolled out a $2 billion fundraising campaign, laying out three key priorities. First, ensuring sustained support for PathwayOregon, a program that pays tuition and fees for qualifying Pell Grant-eligible residents; second, “building campus resources that optimize the learning experience,” including completing the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact; and third, funding key strategic and academic partnerships. 

Later that year, alumni Connie and Steve Ballmer gave UO $50 million for scholarships, obesity prevention, and the school’s first-ever comprehensive branding initiative. Many other gifts soon followed.

Fast-forward to September of 2018. President Michael H. Schill announced the school had raised $1.87 billion. “It is anticipated that at some point over the next year, we will cross that $2 billion threshold, the culmination of a massive undertaking that has transformed this campus in amazing ways and created new opportunities for Oregonians,” he said.

In response to the positive momentum, UO decided to do what any other fair-minded university would do: It tacked on another $1 billion to its goal. “Borrowing a metaphor from track-and-field heritage,” UO’s Giving page read, “we intend to sprint through the tape and keep going. As [former track and field coach] Bill Bowerman once said, “There is no finish line.”

Oregon’s decision came a month before the University of Houston announced its “Beyond the Billion” campaign, which will focus on raising more money for scholarships, endowed professorships, and architectural, artistic and grounds improvements, after eclipsing its “Here We Go” campaign’s $1 billion fundraising goal.

University fundraisers elsewhere can relate to their Oregon and Texas-based brethren. According to a recent survey of nearly 600 fundraising professionals, mostly in higher education, 80 percent of respondents said that campaign fundraising has become an endeavor that is either ongoing or about to be initiated, leaving fundraisers perpetually in campaign mode. There really is no finish line.

The reasons for this reality are self-evident. These campaigns are years in the making. To wind down the apparatus based on something as arbitrary as the calendar would represent a huge opportunity cost, especially when bills need to be paid, scholarships need to be funded, and the next campaign is always looming in the distance.

But there’s a more immediate reason to keep the fundraising engines humming: There’s plenty of money for the taking. The stock market remains strong, millions of baby boomers are cashing out their 401ks, and technology has enabled fundraisers to broaden the donor pool.

Why should fundraisers willingly leave piles of money on the table?

Changing Demographics of Liberal Arts Donors

Oregon’s ramp-up comes as other public universities, including the University of Michigan, the University of Houston, University of Alabama, the University of Arizona, the University of Virginia, and the University of Florida have either exceeded or announced highly ambitious fundraising campaigns. Meanwhile, the longest bull market in history rolls on. Liberal arts proponents have reason to be optimistic.

That being said, changing demographics suggest that fundraisers shouldn’t get too complacent.

Andy Berwick graduated from Oregon in 1955, which puts him in his 80s. The donor behind the San Francisco State University gift in the opening paragraph, George Marcus, is pushing 80. Herb Alpert, who gave the Los Angeles City College a $10.1 million donation, is 84. Younes Nazarian, whose Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation made a big gift to support Cal State University, Northridge’s performing arts center, is 90. Leonard Reggio, who helped fund an “arts and innovation center” at Spelman College, is 78. Jazz Legend Sonny Rollins, who designated a major gift to Oberlin College to create the Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble Fund, is 88.

Each donor hails from an era that embraces the “old world” model of philanthropy. They intuitively understand the value of the liberal arts, eschew a metrics-based approach to measuring impact, and take a hands-off approach to their giving. They give to the arts because it’s obviously a good thing to do.

Commenting on her gift to OU, Phyllis Berwick succinctly encapsulates the modus operandi at play: “Music always made me feel more complete as a person, and it still does,” she said. “It really came as a gift to us, and now we’re giving back.

These baby boomer and silent generation donors are retiring from philanthropy and passing on billions in wealth to an emerging crop of gen X and millennials who, according to a growing body of research, are more likely to view the arts through the lens of social justice and rising inequality. And unlike their parents, many of these would-be donors carry significant student debt. Writing a check to their alma mater’s theater program may not rank high on their list of priorities.

This confluence of factors—debt-saddled student-activists chafing against growing inequality—recently played out at the University of Oregon, ironically enough.

Less than two years ago, UO president Schill walked out of the auditorium, aborting the announcement of a $50 million anonymous gift after student protesters stormed the stage. “The loud group of a few dozen students did not have a cohesive message,” the Oregonian reported, “but did express concerns over tuition costs.” According to the Institute for College Access & Success, 62 percent of Oregon college students carry an average debt of $26,106.

UO seems to understand what’s at stake, here. As noted, one of the campaign’s primary focus areas is providing long-term, endowed support for PathwayOregon, which has served more than 5,000 students. As of September 2018, it had raised $342 million for student support. And upon adding another $1 billion to its fundraising goal, the school announced plans to increase merit-based scholarships such as the Presidential Scholars program, which awards up to $9,000 per year for high-achieving Oregon students.

Calibrating the Pitch

Research suggests that moving forward, fundraisers hoping to engage this younger demographic will need to spend less time appealing to an alumnus’ intuition and more time articulating how the liberal arts and the arts writ large can help to combat inequality, remedy pressing social problems, and engage underserved communities.

Fundraisers should also be heartened by the fact that a growing body of research affirms what “old world” patrons have known for decades—a liberal arts education helps to develop better scientists, doctors, programmers, and more. To that end, the Wall Street Journal’s Adam Kirsh recently argued that the declining number of college students enrolling in the humanities courses doesn’t tell the whole story. “There is a hunger in the U.S. for engagement with ideas and culture that isn’t meditated by universities,” he writes.

And therein lies the final piece of the fundraising puzzle. White papers laying out the benefits of a liberal arts education are no match for real-world experience. Here’s baby boomer oil and gas investor Bobby Patton Jr. after making a $20 million gift supporting faculty and graduate student endowments in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin: “After I left UT, I realized just how important liberal arts were to my life. They taught me how to learn and how to keep on learning.”

If the gen X and millennial liberal arts graduates at the receiving end of the greatest wealth transfer in history go on to enjoy economic mobility and professional success, they’ll be animated by the same sense of intuition and gratitude that drove the giving of their “old world” predecessors.

And so it’s only fair to let Phyllis Berwick, one of the donors behind the gift to UO’s School of Music and Dance, have the last word. “When people forget about the arts, they forget about what makes human beings human,” she said. “That’s the whole purpose of giving: to inspire others, because what you get in return is complete joy.”