"One Step Closer." What We Can Learn From a Big Campus Gift for a Burgeoning Niche Field

Katherine  Welles /shutterstock

Katherine Welles/shutterstock

A recent survey from the Council for Advancement and Support Education found that American colleges and universities raised a record $46.7 billion in fiscal 2018—a 7.2 percent increase over 2017. The rise is driven in part by donors who, having made their fortunes across all corners of the global economy, are putting their unique imprint on recipient schools based on their vision of the future.

We see this dynamic playing out in real-time across American law schools. Recent megagifts have been earmarked for promoting “civic engagement and civil discourse,” criminal justice reform, and preparing students for the global legal landscape with a focus on Asia. Now comes news out of Gainesville finding an alumnus giving big to support the burgeoning field of health law.

The University of Florida (UF) Levin College of Law announced a $20 million gift Richard P. Cole to endow a program in health law, supporting “cutting-edge teaching, scholarship, and advocacy.” Cole’s bequest is the largest individual contribution to UF Law in its history and, according to the school, is one of the largest to any law school in the country. Cole’s bequest continues the legacy of the Robert B. Cole Health Law Endowment, named after Richard’s father, which was created at UF Law in 1995 with the purpose of supporting teaching, programs, research, and publications in the area of health law.

The endowment will support a Chair and a Professorship in Health Law; a health law area of concentration in the J.D. curriculum; merit scholarships for highly credentialed incoming students interested in the study of health law; and an annual symposium bringing together legal and medical communities, government agencies, non-profit organizations, faculty, and law students to explore contemporary and complex health law issues.

Niche Ambitions

Administrators hope Cole’s gift will move UF “one step closer to being a top 5 public research institution.” “Gifts of this magnitude make a significant difference in our progress toward our highest goals as a university,” UF president Kent Fuchs said. “Health law is a critical field today, and this gift will make it possible for our faculty and students to accomplish a marvelous amount of good.” (U.S. News and World Report ranked UF number 8 in its 2019 list of top American public universities.)

Fuchs isn’t alone in articulating a highly specified goal for a university. Ed Lazowska, who is leading the University of Washington’s efforts to raise money for a new computer science building, said, “The goal here is, instead of there being top-four program, to be a top-five program, and for us to be the fifth.” The University of Chicago’s economics department recently unveiled how it plans to use Kenneth Griffin’s $125 million gift after it slipped from a tie at No. 1 to a tie for No. 7 with rival Northwestern University on U.S. News and World Report’s rankings.

Then there’s the recent drama surrounding St. Louis University (SLU). When president Fred Pestello took the reigns in 2014, SLU had seen its academic rankings plummet under former president Lawrence Biondi. In March of 2017 the school, faced with a $16 million budget deficit, a decline in enrollment, and an uptick in expenses, laid off four percent of its workforce. Roughly six months later, the school pledged to double its research budget to $100 million over the next five years to jumpstart efforts to become a premier national research center.

Donations poured in, but not without controversy: Philanthropists Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield’s $50 million gift originally stipulated that Rex would have a role in selecting the director of the new Sinquefield Center for Applied Economic Research, prompting an outcry from faculty members who argued that donors shouldn’t be involved in hiring decisions.

Each of these examples share a common ingredient. Administrators and fundraisers are clearly concerned—some would go as far as to say obsessed—with academic rankings. This is understandable. Schools are vying for a finite pool of qualified students, and a noticeable leap in the rankings can make a huge difference for admissions officers. But in each of these examples we’re also seeing administrators use rankings as a tool to motivate donors, and it’s easy to see why. An uptick in a university’s ranking kills two birds with one stone. It provides a measurable metric of success while elevating the school’s prestige. If you’re an alumnus, what’s not to love?

Attuned to Shifting Demographics

As noted in the introduction to this piece, specialized gifts to law schools find donors “seeing around corners” to address changing demographics and economic realities.

For example, the organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted that Asia will remain the fastest-growing region in the world through 2030. This fact certainly contributed to William A. Franke’s $25 million gift to endow Stanford Law School’s Global Initiative. Thanks to the gift, the school’s first “global quarter” will focus on business in China, Singapore, and Asia. And if anyone would have a sense of where global law is heading, it’s Franke: A successful venture capitalist and international businessman, Boarding Area called him the “Godfather of the Airline Industry.”

Now consider some of the “contemporary and complex health law issues”—to quote UF’s press release—that Cole’s gift aims to address.

Baby boomers are retiring en masse, about 10,000 a day. Many will live long—although not necessarily healthy—lives and experts predict a rise in difficult end-of-life care dilemmas in an aging society, as well as escalating battles over access to care as entitlement programs for seniors come under growing strain. Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act staggers along while prominent Democratic presidential candidates are calling for Medicare for All. Throw in the opioid crisis, the cost of prescription drugs, and the emergence of cutting edge technology like artificial intelligence in the realm of medical care, and it becomes abundantly clear that the field of health law is in a state of constant evolution and uncertainty.

None of this, as one would suspect, is news to Richard Cole. He is Managing Partner of Cole, Scott & Kissane in Miami, Florida, which is the largest Florida-based law firm with more than 400 attorneys in eleven locations. He is recognized as a leader in the areas of personal injury defense and medical, legal, and professional malpractice. Cole has also served as President of the Dade County Bar Association and recently received Lifetime Membership in America’s Top 100 Attorneys.

Boom Times for Public Schools

Another key takeaway from the Council for Advancement and Support Education also shouldn’t come as a huge surprise: Public universities did quite well for themselves in 2018. The University of California at Los Angeles brought in $787 million, while the University of California San Francisco raised $730 million. But the public university fundraising boom isn’t limited to big-time coastal schools. We’ve seen historic fundraising hauls from schools far from familiar affluent enclaves, including the University of Michigan, Arkansas State University, the University of Arizona, and the University of Alabama.

Expect to see the University of Florida added to this ever-growing list. In October of 2017, the university launched the “public phase” of its Go Greater campaign. According to the university, the $3 billion initiative is among the largest active campaigns for a public university and almost double the $1.72 billion raised during UF’s previous campaign, which concluded in 2012.

The school raised $1.3 billion during its three-year “quiet phase.” Gifts included $75 million from Miami couple Al and Judy Warrington to enhance teaching and research in UF’s Warrington College of Business, and $50 million from South Florida entrepreneur Herbert and Nicole Wertheim to “revolutionize engineering education and research.”

At the end of the day, however, public schools wouldn’t dream of embarking on such ambitious fundraising campaigns were it not for the emergence of donors like Richard Cole—an alumnus with a relatively light philanthropic footprint making a mega-gift to transform his alma mater to an international academic powerhouse.

“Richard’s incredible generosity will enable UF Law to assume a leadership role in Health Law,” said Laura Rosenbury, Dean and Levin, Mabie & Levin Professor of Law. “With Richard’s support, we will build upon our existing faculty strengths and better leverage the many opportunities within a major research institution in the third largest state of the nation. This investment in our future will support generations of students who will come from around the world to study Health Law at the University of Florida.”