How Will This Donor's Gift Propel a Liberal Arts School to the "Next Level of Greatness?"

Another day, another big give to create a kind of "arts destination" in a small American town.

This recent gift comes from Franklin & Marshall Trustee Benjamin J. Winter '67 and his wife, Susan to the tune of $10 million for the construction of a new visual arts building on the Lancaster, Pennsylvania school's campus.

But before we try to extract some larger meaning from this gift—and Lord knows we'll try—let's first meet the donors, shall we?

Len Winter is principal of The Winter Organization, a leading real estate investment management business focused on the New York metropolitan area, and currently a vice chair the F&M Board of Trustees.

He and Susan Winter, a graduate of McGill University in Montreal, are avid art collectors and patrons of many visual and performing arts organizations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum, and Arts Connection, a nonprofit providing innovative arts programming to millions of students in the New York City public school system.

Despite their philanthropic focus on the New York City metro area, they're now setting their sites about 164 miles southwest via I-95 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike—not the world's prettiest drive by any stretch—to the sleepy town of Lancaster, population 59,325.

Why?

First off, Winter is a F&M alumni. Secondly, and more importantly, his motivation is rooted in a sense that liberal arts institutions need to change with the times:

One thing I've learned during this time is that a national liberal arts college, competing with its peers, must think and operate on a different level than it did even 20 years ago. We're pleased with the thought that the new visual arts building might help the College community see in new ways, think in new ways, and reach together for that next level of greatness.

Now, when you take a closer look at what the gift accomplishes, Winter's logic, while certainly attuned to the overall higher education zeitgeist, may leave one nonetheless, well, depressed. In essence, Winter at least partially equates attaining that "next level of greatness" with building beautiful and palatial buildings to attract top-tier talent.

There's nothing new about this logic, of course. Universities have constructed elegant buildings for centuries and will continue to do so for perpetuity. Yet it points to the pervasive Bilbao Effect we've seen across the higher education field as of late, where expensive and risky projects attract donor dollars in an effort to—and we're quoting President Daniel R. Porterfield here—"make a bold statement about F&M as a national liberal arts college."

(You may say we're dreamers, but we eagerly await the day when a donor makes a "bold statement" by adressing the root causes of skyrocketing tuition, thereby freeing students from a lifetime of indentured servitude to loan agencies. Tuition for Franklin and Marshall, by the way, is roughly $49,000 a year.)

But again, this is the world we live in. Colleges need to do these things to stay competitive. No student wants to study in a library built during this Johnson administration. Sought-after professors don't want to sit in a crammed office. Capital expenditures and renovation projects are a fact of life for any organization, public or private.

And there's nothing to suggest that this new building won't be anything short of spectacular. At roughly 35,000 square feet, it will be almost double the size of the existing Herman Arts Building, which will be removed to make way for the new structure.

What's more, the building will have an important symbolic impact on the university and community at large. Here's Porterfield again:

This new visual arts building will unleash student and faculty creativity. It will amplify the beauty of the quadrangle within which it sits and the adjacent Buchanan Park. It will create an inviting new entrance to the campus and forge a stronger connection to the Lancaster community and its burgeoning arts culture. And it will fulfill our ideals for environmental sustainability, an element of all our new buildings.

One last point. If our commentary did leave you slightly depressed, thinking the only way to attract donor dollars is to create a majestic, six-figure cathedral of liberal arts learning, don't reach for whatever pill or elixir of choice just yet. Funders still remain committed to classic, programming-based philanthropy across the liberal arts space.

Take recent news out of Baltimore, where a $10 million gift through the Alexander Grass Foundation aims to support humanities research and education at Johns Hopkins University. The gift, the largest ever to support the humanities at Hopkins, will promote "literature, art, philosophy, history, and other cultural studies in Baltimore and the wider community."