Can Civic Engagement Be "Life-Changing?" This Professor-Turned-Donor Thinks So

Question time. Are professors psychologically immune from the well-documented competitive philanthropic dynamic whereby isolated gifts can, over time, snowball into impactful funding for the community at large?

We argue they are not. Professors are just like you and me. They put their pants on one leg at a time. Except sometimes they donate a lot of money to their own universities.

Indeed, we've covered many examples of professors giving to their respective schools over the past 24 months. It's becoming increasingly common. And now comes word that another professor—a celebrity professor, no less—has opened up his wallet, as well.

That would be politics professor Larry Sabato, who recently gave $2 million to the University of Virginia for a $30 million expansion of the Center for Politics. Sabato, the center's founding director, said Tuesday that the fundraising initiative will expand the physical space and provide endowments to support educational programs that advance the center’s mission of civic education and participation. The estimated cost of the new building is just over $12 million. Half of that amount must be raised and the remainder pledged before construction will begin.

Why did Sabato, who is also known for his Crystal Ball predictions, do it? Simple. The center promotes civic engagement that can be "life-changing," he said. In this sense, Sabato is channeling the kind of optimistic thinking that undergirded Jonathan and Lizzie Tisch's $15 million give to the renamed Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, whose goal is to "develop a comment of leaders who are able to rise above the fray and bring positive change to the public sphere."

Sabato's contribution is in addition to nearly $2.1 million he has donated during his tenure at U.Va. in support of a variety of causes, including the School of Medicine's pancreatic cancer program, the library, AccessUVA, and the Cavalier Marching Band.

You also may be wondering how an academic can afford to put up this kind of money. In this sense, Sabato has been channeling his inner economic fiscal conservative (that is, the kind that didn't blow up Clinton's surplus). "I simply saved a lot and I invested," he said of the source of his donation. He started out at $15,000 a year 38 years ago. His salary now? A cool $400,000. Of course, there's also the hefty speaking fees he's been raking in for years.

For more analysis on professors giving to their universities, click here and here.