A University Nets a Huge Donation and Students Protest. What's Going On Here?

 photo:  jejim/shutterstock

photo:  jejim/shutterstock

To say there's a disconnect between the American public university fundraising apparatus and the students it serves would be a huge understatement.

On one hand, administrators, donors and fundraisers pop the Champagne when a massive pledge comes in. Press releases are fired off. Words like "transformational" and "game-changing" are bandied about. The governor might even show up to hail an especially large infusion of alumni cash. 

Meanwhile, students review their latest college loan balance and contemplate that burden climbing even higher before graduation day finally rolls around. Somehow, despite a drumbeat of massive campus gifts in recent years, the plight of student and parents grappling with tuition bills in the mid-five figures seems only to get worse. 

Over the past decade, the amount of student loan debt has risen by 170 percent to a whopping $1.4 trillion, while tuition continues to rise, significantly outpacing inflation. Not only do today's campus mega-givers never speak out on this problem; their gifts seem to reward profligate universities that can't or won't control tuition costs. 

So is it any wonder that University of Oregon students recently disrupted the announcement of a new mega-gift?

In a development that weaves together disjointed higher ed threads like free speech, runaway tuition, and donor mega-gifts, University of Oregon President Michael Schill walked out of the auditorium before taking the podium to announce a $50 million anonymous gift after student protestors stormed the stage.

Charlie Landeros, who led the march, said the group represented UO students who felt their voices weren't being heard by university administrators. "Over the summer there has been a huge proliferation of neo-Nazi propaganda plastered all over campus," Landeros said, adding he feared it could escalate to a violent hate crime. "We're here to stand against that."

Among the students' other grievances? Rising tuition costs.

I'll get to the tuition component in a second, but first, let's start with the gift itself.

A Gift for "Strategic Investments"

The anonymous donors did not earmark the $50 million donation for any specific program or initiative, a rare thing in the higher ed giving space. That said, the money will be used for "strategic investments" rather than ongoing operating costs. 

These investments include new endowed positions, embedding UO faculty in high schools to train teachers, funding a tutoring and support staffer at the Black Cultural Center for African-American students, and a new media center for science and technology.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of your typical UO student.

Your total cost of attendance is $26,443. You're one of the 35 percent of undergraduates not receiving some sort of scholarship. Nor are you part of the PathwayOregon program, which covers tuition and fees for academically qualified, Pell-eligible students.

Meanwhile, tuition for a full-time student at a public university in Oregon has risen 38 percent since 2005-2006, adjusted for inflation. What's more, back in May, the Oregon university system asked the state to approve an increase of in-state tuition by—brace yourself—10.6 percent!

Add it all up, and you—and your parents, for that matter—can't help but wonder: Embedding UO faculty in high school sounds nice, but what if the $50 million helped to lower tuition?

Maybe the "Snowflakes" Have a Point

As with most disruptive protests, it's easy to engage in ad hominem attacks. Read the comments posted on OregonLive, and you'll see that some people have little sympathy for the ungrateful "snowflakes" or—my personal favorite—"brainwashed commies" who are likely among the 62 percent of Oregon college students facing an average student debt of $26,106.

Nor are donors particularly appreciative of the wave of on-campus protests sweeping the country, as we've reported. Donors like stability, and as previously noted, chaos is bad for the bottom line. For example, Carolyn A. Martin, Amherst's president, said she was "not surprised" that student protests had contributed to a 6.5 percent decline in alumni giving for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016.

So let us agree that the UO protesters were rude and perhaps misguided. Youth is, indeed, wasted on the young. Does that make their concerns about escalating tuition any less valid, especially considering the optics at play? 

After all, Phil and Penny Knight gave the university a $500 million donation a year ago. UO has a nationally renowned and (presumably?) lucrative football program. Michael Schill earns $798,400 a year, making him one of the highest paid university presidents according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s salary rankings.

And now, a few months after a proposed 10.6 percent in-state tuition increase, a new gift—and an anonymous one at that, replete with concerns about transparency and accountability—has added another $50 million to the pot.

Indeed, there are many factors contributing to escalating tuition at public universities, including escalating health and pension benefits, ongoing budget cuts at the state level, and a broken federal student loan system. It's understandable why people should be grateful for donor largesse. Without private philanthropy, things would get really ugly.

Yet, it's of little solace for many UO students facing a lifetime of debt, given the fact that it seems to be figuratively raining money all over campus.

And so rather than lament the impetuousness of youthful rebellion, it would behoove donors and administrators alike to ask why students are frustrated and address the divide that seems to be widening with every new mega-gift.