How Seven Donors Teamed Up To Give a Small Liberal Arts College a Big Shot in the Arm

One of the selling points of small liberal arts colleges is their low student-faculty ratio. Professors are often much more accessible than those at larger universities. Amherst College boasts an eight to one faculty ratio. At Bates College in Maine, meanwhile, there are 10 students for every one faculty member.

In our higher education coverage, we write often about gifts from donors that create new programs and facilities on campus. To be sure, these gifts provide a critical jolt for a school. Still, drawing faculty to a school to lead these new programs is important, too. Up until recently, Bates College hadn't expanded its faculty in a decade.

What changed?

Well, seven Bates families recently gave a total of $19 million to the liberal arts school. The funds will create six new endowed professorships. Three of these will launch the college’s new Program in Digital and Computational Studies. The other three endowed professorships will fund new faculty positions in chemistry, economics, and neuroscience. 

As Bates Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty Matt Auer puts it, "These new chairs are truly a shot in the arm for all of us at Bates... for years, we have been adding programs and offerings in response to student interest and the evolution of intellectual fields, without adding the faculty to support these undertakings."

Let's talk about some of the donors involved, here. The largest gift of $10 million comes from Michael Bonney and his wife Alison, who both belong to the Class of 1980. Their gift is the biggest single gift in the school's history. Michael Bonney was at the helm of Cubist Pharmaceuticals in Lexington, Massachusetts before recently joining Boston-based Third Rock Ventures. The Bonney couple has been deeply involved with their alma mater and Bonney chairs the board of trustees. I've written before about the important role that chairs and other members of a school's leadership can have on giving. What's more, the Bonney family's ties to Bates span four generations; the Bonneys are parents of three Bates graduates, and Bonney's father and grandfather all attended Bates. As Bonney says, “I’ve had a family association with Bates College since the 1920s, so I know where Bates is today relative to where we’ve been."

This is a profile of the kind of donor you'd expect to give big, and it's also easy to see how this family could motivate others to give, too.

Related: Now There's a Nice Goodbye: Behind a Major Gift by This Alumnus

Massachusetts couple George Colony and Ann Colony are among the donors who contributed the other $9 million. The Colony couple have been involved with the parents fund at Bates, and George Colony is founder, chairman, and CEO of Forrester Research. Another alumnus donor, Darrell Crate, co-founder and managing director at Easterly Capital, is based in Massachusetts, too. While many of these donors are based in the Northeast, another alumni couple, J. Blair Frank and Tena Fishman Frank (Class of 1989), live in Los Angeles.

We don't often see individual higher ed donors collaborate on one specific initiative, but it makes a lot of sense in terms of generating a big bang. We can only imagine the development legwork that went into getting all the pieces to fit together.