News and analysis
September 01, 2016

For the ‘Big Ask,’ Some Presidents Look Within

André Chung for The Chronicle

Mark B. Rosenberg, president of Florida International U., speaks with a first-generation student. He donated $1 million to the university to help such students.

This article was originally published by The Chronicle of Higher Education on August 14, 2016 as part of The Almanac of Higher Education 2016-17.

Day after day, college presidents seek donations for their institutions, and they hope to land some big ones. Sometimes the money they raise is their own.

Chief executives who have donated tens of thousands of dollars or more to their own institutions often have a particular cause that moves them, like helping students with scholarships or other aid (see table).

Early this year, Mark B. Rosenberg and his wife donated $1 million to Florida International University, where he has been president since 2009, for scholarships for first-generation students. The money came from his carefully invested salary, he says.

Florida International, which is in the midst of a $750-million campaign, "has been very good to my family," says Mr. Rosenberg, who joined the institution in 1976 as an assistant professor of political science. "I’ve had meaningful work here almost my entire career."

The aspirations of Florida International’s students resonate with him, he says: More than half of its 41,000 undergraduates are first-generation college students, as he was.

Campaign consultants say presidents commonly give 10 percent of their annual salary to their institutions’ capital campaigns, and many give another $5,000 to $10,000 to their institutions annually.

Presidents without a million to spare may have to be nudged to donate even what they can, say advancement professionals. The task, says Karen E. Osborne, a senior strategist for the Osborne Group in New York State, often falls to fund-raising consultants like herself. The chair of the board of trustees or the board’s campaign co-chair may take on that job, too, even though "they have a special relationship with the president, and the president solicits them, so it can be awkward."

Ideally, whoever is closest to the president makes the request, says Fritz W. Schroeder, vice president for development and alumni relations at the Johns Hopkins University. Any college employee assigned the role should "artificially suspend just for a moment that this is your boss and treat it like any other philanthropic relationship." That, he says, includes gauging and tweaking as necessary "the maturity of that person’s thinking about philanthropy."

Like many major donors to colleges, Mr. Rosenberg traces his philanthropy to his upbringing. His parents met when his father was part of a United States Army team that liberated his future mother and other prisoners from a Nazi work camp. They raised their family in Athens, Ohio, the home of Ohio University. Growing up among academic families, but not part of one, Mr. Rosenberg saw that a college education was "a ticket to the middle class," and he worked his way through college. His pledge, he says, seeks to honor his parents and is driven by his belief that college attendance should not hinge upon "the ZIP code of your birth."

Search committees do well to discern whether prospective chief executives exhibit that sort of philanthropic spirit, fund-raising experts suggest. Mr. Schroeder says one of his bosses used to ask presidential candidates leading questions about their favorite charities.

How, asks Ms. Osborne, can presidents who haven’t felt "the joy of giving" instill across campus the sort of "culture of philanthropy" that boosts institutional morale?

The median salary for a college president may be about four times the average salary of a full professor, but when it comes to making major donations, the most-generous professors far outdo presidents (see table).

Francisco J. Ayala, a professor in the University of California at Irvine’s school of biological sciences, says the good feelings that reign at the school inspired him to give so much to it. In 2010 the John Templeton Foundation honored him with its annual $1.5-million award for "contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension." He asked that the money go straight to the school, to underwrite fellowships for graduate students. The next year Mr. Ayala, who is a professor of philosophy and of the philosophy of science as well as of biological sciences, gave the school $10 million from his California vineyard business. The money is dedicated to providing scholarships and endowing the deanship, and to being used "for good purposes" by the chairs of the school’s four departments. The school is now named for him.

"The university has given me a lot" in terms of fine research facilities and talented students, says Mr. Ayala, a leading authority on evolutionary genetics and a former Dominican priest. He intends his donations to many institutions to express gratitude to the United States, where he arrived from Spain in 1961 as a nearly penniless doctoral candidate. He saved, bought 400 acres, and parlayed them into 2,000 acres of prime California vineyards.

 Other faculty donors might acquire wealth by developing drugs or new technologies at their institutions and then spinning off companies. Some join the faculty after successful careers in business and then are inspired to contribute money.

Still other professors may donate family funds or carefully invested savings. Sometimes the source of the wealth is never made public, as in the case of Helen M. Wallace, who left the University of California at Berkeley $13 million upon her death at the age of 99 in 2013. The university is using the bequest to establish a center in the field in which she was well known, maternal and child health.

Gifts from both presidents and professors that are not devoted to student aid are often dedicated to endowing professorships, chairs, or deanships. Some donor presidents also give to bolster the pay of low-wage workers. In 2014, Raymond M. Burse, then interim president of Kentucky State University, requested that $90,000 of his $350,000 salary be dedicated to that cause.

The president of another historically black institution, William R. Harvey, has made a habit of giving for such purposes. Among his and his family’s many gifts in education and other fields is more than $3 million to Hampton University, where he has been president for 38 years.

He has focused his gifts: to raise salaries of faculty and staff members, and to endow scholarships for "future leaders" and students who aspire to become schoolteachers. "Without teachers," he said, "we can’t have astronauts, engineers, business moguls."

Mr. Harvey derives much of his wealth from his ownership of the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of Houghton, Mich. He says he neither hesitates to suggest to groundskeepers that they keep the college’s lawns a little trimmer, nor stints on sowing praise all around campus. That’s all part of his comprehensive plan to elevate the institution, however he can.

Philanthropy from the top reaps giving on campus, he says, and "when people have input into something, they have buy-in." And when he goes off campus, "because I have given, I don’t have any problem at all asking others — corporations, foundations, institutions — for financial support for Hampton, for such a wonderful, worthy cause."

Correction (8/16/2016, 10:14 a.m.): The original version of this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education incorrectly reported the year that Mark B. Rosenberg joined Florida International University and his academic rank at the time. He joined it in 1976 as an assistant professor of political science, not in 1979 as a professor of political science. The article has been corrected.