"Indispensable Values." Another Big Gift to Advance Civic Discourse

  UVA. photo: Felix Lipov/shutterstock

 UVA. photo: Felix Lipov/shutterstock

Colleges and universities in all parts of the U.S. continue to raise mountains of cash thanks to alumni who left for coastal cities to make their millions (and billions) but haven’t forgotten their roots. 

Consider a recent $43.9 million gift from Martha and Bruce Karsh to the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Law, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. The couple met as law students and graduated from the school in the early 1980s.

Afterward, Bruce clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for then-Judge Anthony Kennedy. They eventually migrated out west, where he co-founded the Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management with longtime business partner Howard Marks in 1995. The firm now has $120 billion of assets under management.

Martha practiced as a business litigator and also worked at UCLA Student Legal Services. Through the Beverly Hills-based Karsh Family Foundation, which launched in 1998, the couple has focused on educational and health institutions, as well as Jewish charities.

Despite the Karshes' heavy footprint in Southern California, they have kept the gifts flowing to their alma maters back east. One big recipient is Duke University, where Bruce, whose net worth currently stands just shy of $2 billion, matriculated as an undergraduate. In 2011, the couple donated $50 million to Duke for a permanent endowment to support need-based financial aid for undergraduate students.

Nor has the couple neglected the University of Virginia, which received a gift for its Karsh Student Services Center in 2012.

The Karshes' recent gift, which includes $18.9 million in matching funds from the university’s Board of Visitors, is earmarked for three purposes.

First, it will fund the law school’s student scholarship program, which will be named the Karsh-Dillard Scholarships. Second, it will establish the Karsh Center for Law and Democracy, which will support interdisciplinary programming focused on the rule of law, civic engagement, civil discourse, and the "indispensable value of truth, integrity and ethics." Third, it will create an endowed professorships fund to support faculty associated with the new center.

The Karshes, in other words, are looking to the university model to boost civic engagement and discourse. They aren't alone.

Jonathan and Lizzie Tisch donated $15 million to the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts College, 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." Meanwhile, the John Templeton Foundation awarded $5.75 million to the University of Connecticut to support research into ways of balancing humility and conviction in today's public discourse.

And last year, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation donated a whopping $150 million to a joint research, education, and public policy program with Johns Hopkins University to promote the ideal of intelligent and restrained civic and political discourse.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn’t call attention to the larger political and philanthropic context at play here. Roughly four years after the Hewlett Foundation launched the Madison Initiative in an effort to foment constructive public engagement in civic life, the state of political discourse has only deteriorated. Polarization has hardened. Public trust continues to erode.

Many donors attribute this development to the current occupant in the White House. Some, like Pierre Omidyar, believe that President Trump is threatening the very foundations of American democracy itself. The "Trump Effect," in other words, is a very real philanthropic phenomenon that continues to animate civic-minded donors and has shown no signs of letting up anytime soon.

So while it would be pure conjecture to frame the Karshes’ gift as a direct response to the unsavory byproducts of the current administration, the couple, at the very least, has joined the growing ranks of donors promoting what they call the "indispensable value of truth, integrity, and ethics" in a highly charged and unstable civic climate. 

According to UVA, the Karshes have now committed over $50 million to the school, and more than $250 million overall in education philanthropy through their Karsh Family Foundation. 

The gift to UVA Law kicks off the school’s Third Century Campaign and coincides with UVA’s $5 billion capital campaign. University officials said the campaign will focus on strengthening core priorities, including faculty, fellowships, student access, and affordability. The campaign’s public phase will begin in fall 2019 and extend through the spring of 2025. (The school's previous campaign wrapped up in 2013. It raised $3 billion.)

And so the other big story here is the fact that UVA has joined the ever-growing list of public universities embarking on massive fundraising campaigns that would have seemed unthinkable as recently as 10 years ago. Other recent examples include the University of Maryland ($1.5 billion), the University of Arizona ($1.5 billion), and USC ($6 billion).

Emboldened fundraisers are upping their campaign goals to seemingly absurd levels for a variety of reasons.

For starters, there's just a lot more money out there, with U.S. household wealth now over $100 trillion, and big chunks of it in the hands of wealthy older Americans who have more money than they need to retire or want to pass down to their children.

Meanwhile, some schools have become adept at reaching younger alumni and expanding the donor base. Others have successfully convinced donors that their support can plug gaps in public funding. And other fundraisers simply never stop raising money. At many universities, fundraising has become an "always on" activity, rather than one with a fixed beginning and endpoint.

Yet squeezing a few extra hundred dollars from young alumni or adding more donors to the mix can only move the needle so far. More than ever, record-shattering campaigns hinge on fundraisers’ ability to net coveted mega-gifts from alumni like Bruce and Martha Karsh who, while living on the other side of the continent, have remained indebted to their alma maters and seek a more moderate level of civic discourse.

Click here for more IP coverage on gifts to university law schools.