Building Excellence in Challenging Times: Fearless Ideas at College Park

ByBrit Kirwan
Chancellor Emeritus (USM)
Professor Emeritus (UMCP)

Once upon a time, in an era far from today, public universities across the country could count on significant, if not always fully sufficient, state support to carry out their missions and build the excellence of their programs.  Starting about 30 years ago, however, state investment in higher education began to decline.  While there have been momentary increases in a few years, looking back over time the long term trend is clear. Since 1985, there has been a roughly 40% decrease in state appropriations on a per FTE student basis nationally.

Many thought that once the Great Recession was over, state funding of higher education might return to norms and levels of times past.   Obviously, that has not occurred, nor is it likely to occur in the foreseeable future.  Indeed, a recent report said 24 states, including Maryland, are having mid-year budget cuts this year.
Only K-12 education, public safety, Medicaid and related healthcare expenses are “mandated” expenditures in most states.  These expenses are projected to grow steadily in the coming years. Regrettably, higher education falls into the “discretionary” portion of funding in virtually every state.  This means that increased investment in higher ed would almost certainly require an increase in tax rates, which seems highly unlikely in today’s political environment.
In these circumstances, how can institutions like the University of Maryland continue to build their quality and impact?  The answer is they must rely to an ever-greater extent on generating alternative sources of revenue, including most especially philanthropic investments.

Fortunately, UMD is poised to do just that.  This university is blessed to have a Board of Trustees, presently chaired by 1970 graduate Ray Ferrara, whose members are successful alums and friends of the institution and who care deeply about the quality of the university.  I am privileged to serve as an honorary member of the Board and can attest to the great pride the trustees have in the university and the high aspirations they hold for its continuing march to the very top rank of public research universities.

In partnership with President Wallace Loh, the Board is preparing to help the university launch a major fund raising campaign in support of the university’s academic and institutional priorities.   To highlight the creativity of the university’s faculty, staff and students, the campaign will use the moniker, Fearless Ideas: The Campaign for Maryland.  Consistent with the university’s mission, the campaign will place special emphasis on addressing the great societal issues of our time through the work of this institution’s exceptional academic and research programs.
This will be the university’s third capital campaign and by far its largest yet.   While the final goal has not yet been set, it will be substantially above the $1 billion mark.  Planning for the campaign is underway across the campus.  All of our schools and colleges are in the process of creating a committee of volunteers who will help raise funds.  They have also established campaign goals, ranging from $325 million at the Clark School of Engineering to $15 million at some of our smallest colleges.

Four members of the Board of Trustees, Alma Guildenhorn, Barry Gossett, John Lauer and I, serve as co-chairs for the planning phase of the campaign.  A major part of our effort is to recruit the volunteers and develop the structure that will ensure the campaign’s success.  Given the magnitude of this effort and the ambitious nature of our campaign goal, we expect to attract some 200 volunteer leaders and receive gifts from more than 100,000 alums and friends of the university.   Once the planning phase is ended and the campaign is officially launched, we will hand off the leadership role to another set of trustees but we will continue to play an active role in securing the gifts that will make the campaign a success.

The Fearless Ideas campaign will feature many bold initiatives including:
•    $200 million for new endowed chairs and professorships to recruit and retain a stellar faculty across the campus;
•    $40 million to instill creative thinking and dramatically expand innovative curricula, programming and experiences within the arts, humanities and culture and build, in partnership with the Phillips Collection, a world-class museum of modern art for the campus;
•    $25 million to establish, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, the Brain and Behavior Institute, which will focus on the causes and develop treatment strategies for brain disorders and injury;
•    $40 million to spur the development of transformative engineering and biomedical technologies that can address humankind’s most daunting global health challenges;
•    $25 million to leverage the unmatched quality of UMD’s interdisciplinary researchers within the Joint Quantum Institute and across the campus and develop the world’s first quantum computer;
•    $40 million to create a cross-disciplinary research initiative addressing today’s most pressing global issue, including climate change, sustainability, public health and economic prosperity;
•    $300 million to support undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowship including a new $75 million endowment dedicated to need-based aid.

While all of these initiatives, and others not on the list, are very exciting, with potential for huge impact on the larger society, I want to express a special word of support for the $75 million targeted for need-based financial aid.  A somewhat invisible but potentially destabilizing crisis is emerging in our country.  This is the gross under-representation of low-income students on college campuses.  A child from the lowest quintile of income has less than a 10% chance of ever earning a college degree; whereas, a child from the upper quintile has a greater than 80% chance of becoming a college graduate.  Since lifetime income is more highly correlated to college degrees than at anytime in our nation’s history, this disparity has the potential to create a permanent economic underclass in America, which belies our founding ethos as the world’s exemplar of an upwardly mobile society.  Sadly, the US now ranks near the bottom among the industrialized nations in the index of upward economic mobility.   The tragedy is that there are tens of thousands of low-income students in Maryland and across the nation with the ability to succeed at institutions of UMD’s high caliber.  They just don’t have the means to do so.  This initiative will enable UMD to demonstrate national leadership on an issue of paramount importance for the long-term well being of our nation.  It is just one example of the kind of impact the Fearless Ideas campaign can have on our institution’s ability to address the major societal issues facing our state, nation and world.

As I noted at the outset, in today’s world, great universities will be sustained and advanced in large measure through major philanthropic efforts.  The commitment of UMD’s Board of Trustees to ensuring the kind of philanthropic support needed to maintain and build UMD’s academic excellence should be a source of great encouragement and excitement for the university community.   Enormous effort will be required both from within the university and among the volunteers to make a campaign of this magnitude a success.  I cannot imagine anything more worthy of our time and attention, however, because nothing less than the hard won and continued excellence of our university is at stake.

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