On Aug. 29, the UConn Foundation announced record-breaking fundraising for its fourth consecutive year, amassing $157.9 million in new gifts, including an individual donation of $40 million from School of Nursing alumna Elisabeth DeLuca. According to the announcement published in UConn Today, the donor pool for the 2023 fiscal year totaled 22,541 people, which Foundation CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said helped further the priorities of “fostering student success and supporting the learning and research that will benefit the state of Connecticut and beyond.”
This considerable sum — 35% of which is allocated to need-based and merit scholarships, over 30% to academic departments, 17.% for the athletics program, 9.5% to the University of Connecticut School of Health and 7.9% for supporting faculty members — is, in the most literal sense, a gift to the university. In an academic environment where departments must compete for funding and scholarships may be the sole determinant of one’s ability to attend university, fundraising provides critical — albeit highly selective — breathing room for scholars at UConn.
Should donations to the UConn Foundation, the private non-profit organization that manages UConn’s $600 million endowment and solicits donations from alumni, continue to increase, The Daily Campus Editorial Board hopes that the cost burden on students, faculty and staff will decrease correspondingly; however, trends in the cost of tuition and housing, as well as the UConn Foundation’s structural and political ability to reverse those trends, don’t leave us optimistic. UConn’s fundraising efforts from private donors must be reflected in cooperation between the administration, Board of Trustees and state officials to decrease costs for students.
UConn students wondering why their university’s historic fundraising isn’t translating into decreased costs across the board may need further education on what the endowment is and how and why it is distributed as it is — but nonetheless, they’re asking the right question. After all, with the #SaveUConn debacle still in recent memory much of the student population, they are justified in scrutinizing UConn’s fundraising machinery whether it is public or private. The UConn Foundation’s optimism about its adeptness at raising money provokes the question of why this university needed to be “saved” from state-led austerity in the first place.
One potential reason is the increased ease of soliciting donations from private entities with strings attached — that is, when the donating party can condition where their contribution goes. While non-profits are regulated by state agencies such as the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection or uniform laws like the Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, which is actually designed to limit endowment spending, the level of public oversight and accountability that applies to them is infinitesimal compared to that of state funds for universities. The latter are allocated by appropriations committees staffed by elected officials who are, at least in theory, supposed to be accountable to their constituents. The draw for private donations — individual choice of how the gift is used — is much stronger than raising public monies for higher education, which would require increasing taxation on wealthy Connecticut residents.
It is also worth noting, without alleging any causation, that UConn employees comprise the majority of the state’s highest-paid public employees, and the board of trustees boasts higher-ups in many of Connecticut’s leading industries from insurance, to banking to defense and aerospace. What is sure, as the Editorial Board has discussed numerous times, is that UConn officials have systematically opted for the neoliberal option of increasing students’ tuition over lobbying the state for enough funding to mitigate the cost of attending UConn, which currently runs above $34,000 for in-state students and $57,000 for those who live out of state.
The Editorial Board understands that this is not a simple gap to bridge, and we believe that there is some merit to the idea of alumni giving back to programs that benefited them. However, as things currently stand, the academic and social stakeholders who need resources the most do not have the means to host a dialogue with donors on even footing. The broader solution that the university and the UConn Foundation must craft is how to expand governance of the endowment to all parties — not just those looking for a write-off on their taxes, but students and staff members from departments who can make genuine appeals for more resources.
As the Editorial Board has also discussed, transparency of the endowment fund and where its principal is invested are also major issues, and one that we believe could be addressed through granting more checks and balances between the Foundation and the community it exists to serve. While reforming UConn’s philanthropic arm is far from the end-all-be-all of social change, nor is it an alternative to taxing the wealthy and cutting ties to harmful industries such as fossil fuels and arms manufacturers, it could be one step forward for making this so-called public university a true shared institution.