Bailed Out: A Loyal Donor Family Comes to the Aid of a Beleaguered University

A recent gift from Chicago's Cohn family to Roosevelt University reminds me of the old philanthropic adage: "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. And pray for a huge donation."

Let me set it up for you.

Somewhat buried in the Chicago Tribune's piece on the family's recent $25 million donation—the largest gift in the school's 71-year history—is this tidbit:

A 2015 Tribune investigation found the school borrowed heavily to construct the university's $123 million bluish-green tower on South Wabash Avenue. University leaders predicted the campus would have a $40 million boost in annual tuition revenue to cover the cost of the 32-story facility. Tuition grew only about $5 million, and now the school is saddled with burgeoning debt payments.

Two thoughts come to mind upon reading this.

First, it seems that school was seduced by the Bilbao Effect, proving once again that the allure of an incredibly expensive capital project isn't limited to museum boards. In a way, you can't blame them. Students deserve modern buildings and besides, these kinds of glitzy projects bring in big donations. Or so the logic goes.

Second, and more disturbingly, is the assumption that the "bluish-green" tower would be paid for by tuition revenue. Call me old-fashioned, but I imagine most debt-riddled 19-year olds would be happy to forego the tower entirely if they had more breathing space on tuition. And so, perversely enough, the "good news" is that tuition "only" grew by $5 million. 

But it gets worse. Last October, Roosevelt University's new president, Ali Malekzadeh, apologized to students for the school's "financial aid issues." In short, some Roosevelt students told the Tribune they were given unreliable financial aid estimates when they were accepted—figures that changed once they enrolled at Roosevelt. Others said they were told they "had not paid sufficient tuition and were asked to leave campus without much effort by counselors or advisers to understand or straighten out the situation."

Under normal circumstances, a donor would look at this Roosevelt's recent track record and run for the hills. But the Cohn family isn't your average family of donors. 

The family patriarch, Jacob Cohn, an immigrant from Lithuania, founded Continental Coffee Co. in Chicago in 1915. It subsequently grew to a multi-billion dollar enterprise. 

Jacob's wife Rosaline was one of the university's first benefactors, giving $200 soon after Roosevelt opened in 1945. He then gave $100 a year until 1957, when he increased his gifts to $500 a year. Rosaline continued to donate to Roosevelt after Jacob's passing in 1968, giving $500,000 to launch the Jacob and Rosaline Cohn Scholarship Fund in the 1980s.

In other words, this family's loyalty long predates the school's current difficulties, giving them a unique vantage point from which to look beyond the fumbles of its current leadership to the bigger picture of building a strong university over the long term. These are exactly the kinds of friends you want to have when you drive into a ditch and need someone to tow you out. 

Which brings us back to the family's latest $25 million gift.

According to the school, $1.2 million will be earmarked to build upon the Cohn Scholarship fund. "You always want to keep the tuition as low as possible and the university as affordable as possible," Malekzadeh said. "What this will do is allow us to not increase our tuition as much because there's scholarship money available." This proves that such gifts provide minimal incentives for schools to actually reduce tuition. Why reduce tuition when you can build a $123 million bluish-green tower?

The remaining $23.8 million will be used, presumably, to shore up the school's shaky finances.