Not Your Typical Reorganization: A Gift to Take an Arts College to the "Next Level"

How's this for a metric underscoring the new ascendance of the arts in higher education? Funders aren't just cutting checks to prop up existing programs, they're also building art centers from scratch and helping newly formed art colleges get to the "next level."

In the case of the former, the Eisner Foundation—helmed by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner—recently gave $5 million to create a new performing arts center at Eisner's alma mater of Denison University in Granville, Ohio.

In the case of the latter, the John P. McGovern Foundation donated $20 million to support the University of Houston's newly created arts college, which will be renamed to honor Kathrine G. McGovern, the foundation's president and a former UH student.

Now I know what you're thinking. "How can this be? The arts aren't a ticket to meaningful employment. And donors nowadays want the most bang for their buck. That's why they're so keen on funding STEM programs. What gives?"

My response to this question is two-fold: First, this conventional wisdom is, quite simply, wrong. There will always be a class of donors, whether an institutional funder like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation or an affluent ex-media mogul like Michael Eisner, that will support the humanities at the higher education level. Some of these donors are guided by quantifiable performance metrics. Others simply act based on "what feels right." This will never change.

What's more—and this has been a recurring theme across this space as of late—the idea that the STEM vs. liberal arts debate needn't be a zero sum game has reached critical mass amongst the donor class. They can co-exist. They can even complement each other

Once you get a handle of this contextual backdrop, $20 million to a new arts college at the University of Houston doesn't seemed so far fetched.

Details surrounding the creation of the new arts college further underscore a kind of arts resurgence at the higher university level.

As a state school with over 42,000 students, the University of Houston, quite naturally, always had an arts college. This gift doesn't whip one up from scratch. Rather, the school's arts programs previously operated under the umbrella of its College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. Pretty standard stuff.

Well yes, except for the fact that school's regents concluded the arts weren't being properly optimized under that structure. And so they spun off their art programs under a new art college "in an effort to increase visibility and operate performing and visual arts programs more effectively."

And so what can be mundanely described as an organizational restructure was actually predicated on some pretty bold thinking—a school's arts capacity should be utilized to its fullest potential. (What a concept!)

The Houston-based McGovern Foundation obviously agreed. "We think that this will be the type of funding that would be necessary for the arts college to pretty much go to the next level," said vice president and director Bill Shrader. Money from the gift will upgrade performing space, recruit top faculty and support student scholarships, Provost Paula Short said.

The John P. McGovern Foundation was established in 1961 by its namesake, a Houston pediatrician, allergist, immunologist and teacher. He also established the McGovern Allergy Clinic and the Texas Allergy Research Foundation. He passed away in 2007.

One last point here, and it brings me back to the idea of contextual backdrop. The gift is part of the UH's $1 billion capital campaign. University officials said they already have raised $684 million in the bank after five years of fundraising.

It's another piece of evidence, recently posited in our look at the University of Arizona's startling fundraising success, pointing to an upsurge in regional higher ed philanthropy in areas like the Southeast, Upper Midwest, and the Southwest. The recent decades of wealth accumulation haven't just created great fortunes in places like New York and California, they spawned zillionaires everywhere, and now more of these folks are turning to philanthropy in a big way. The affluent city of Houston has long had a strong philanthropic tradition, but here and elsewhere in the Southwest, a new era of mega-gifts is clearly visible. 

As for the McGovern Foundation's gift, it ranks among the campaign's largest alongside board of regents Chairman Tilman Fertitta's $20 million donation in July 2016 toward athletics. Click here for a closer look at that one.