Another Donor Steps Forward As Public Dollars Fall Short, This Time At Iowa State

Across the country, states are slashing funds for public colleges and universities. At the same time, the economy is improving by many measures, perhaps leaving some donors more confident than they were a few years ago. Private donors are in a unique position to step in and help public schools. I wrote recently about UNC alum Fred Eschelman going to bat for his alma mater to the tune of $100 million after the state couldn't come through. 

Another example of this phenomenon is a recent $22 million gift to Iowa State University by an anonymous alumni couple. A large part of the gift will help bankroll a planned Student Innovation Center, "a highly flexible, dynamic space that encourages experimentation, innovation and interdisciplinary investigation." Applied sciences appears to be the theme, and here we have another school recognizing the importance of STEM education.

But unlike Eshelman's gift, which was bankrolled entirely by him in lieu of the state, this gift is a private/public partnership. The estimated cost of the Student Innovation Center is $80 million, with a proposed $40 million in funding coming from the state and the other $40 million from private sources. It's a good reminder of just how unique Eshelman's gift was and that for other institutions, capital campaigns might have to include a mixture of private and public funding.

Still, $22 million (with at least another $18 million in private funds on the way) is no small chunk of change, and according to ISU President Steven Leath, this is the largest gift for an academic building in the history of the university. Indeed, universities are increasingly reliant upon private donors to fund building improvements and endow faculty and scholarships. For smaller schools in smaller states, this might be especially relevant. Remember: This is Iowa State University, not the UCLA. Of course, even the University of California system has been hard hit by state cuts.

A stone's throw away in Kansas, Fred Cholick, president of K-State Foundation, sums up this point well: “Fifteen or 20 years ago, philanthropic dollars were the icing on the cake. Now they have become part of the building blocks.”

While this gift was made anonymously, we do know that the donors were ISU alums, and an alumni couple at that, which, as we like to say, means twice the loyalty. Add to that an underdog institution in a bind, where a project like this might not get off the ground without private funding. Luckily for ISU, they found just the right couple to get the ball rolling.

The remaining balance from the anonymous gift will be used to create an endowed dean’s chair in the College of Human Sciences.