The public phase of the University of Minnesota’s latest capital campaign, labeled simply “Driven,” began Friday with a flourish of maroon-and-gold pom-poms and the Minnesota Rouser on Gateway Plaza. It was a festive show for a $4 billion fundraising push through 2021 that has been quietly underway for six years and that already has amassed gifts and pledges of $2.5 billion.
That sequence — a quiet push for major gifts, followed by a public appeal for smaller ones — is the customary pattern for big-league higher education fundraising in America. The start of the academic year and the success of the campaign’s quiet phase likely determined the timing of Friday’s kickoff.
It’s well-timed for another reason, too. With many voices in recent years disparaging American higher education — and support from the public sector lagging for several decades — Minnesotans could do just now with a reminder of the value of the education, research and outreach its flagship university performs.
The campaign’s national context is not encouraging. “[U]niversity research is in trouble,” asserts a featured article in the latest issue of Washington Monthly magazine, “and so is an economy more dependent on it than many people understand.” It describes federal funding that has not kept pace with inflation for the last decade and that could be cut deeper under the budget proposed by President Donald Trump. “The problem is more pronounced at public universities than privates, and especially at public institutions in the Midwest, which have historically conducted some of the nation’s most important research,” writer Jon Marcus reports.
Fortunately, the University of Minnesota has been somewhat shielded from that trend, thanks to an ability to tap institutional funds to support research. BestColleges.com ranked the U 14th among the nation’s research universities in total research and development spending last year, but third in its commitment of institutional funds for that purpose.
Private donations make that possible. By and large, the gifts donors make to the new campaign won’t flow directly to the annual operating budget. They don’t lessen the need for state government support. Rather, as President Eric Kaler told the Star Tribune Editorial Board, “they represent the opportunity to go from good to great” in research, curricular enhancements and outreach efforts.
They also present a chance to beef up the university’s endowment. At $3.3 billion in 2016, it ranked 29th among the nation’s research universities — a middling position that suggests room for improvement. Endowments are intended to last in perpetuity. Only their earnings can be tapped for operations, and then typically for donor-restricted purposes. They often provide the financial aid that helps make college affordable for low- and middle-income students.
Enlarging financial aid is a top objective of the Driven campaign. So are medical and food-science research, a spur for marketable inventions, and funding for efforts to secure equal opportunity for all Minnesotans. The campaign affords Minnesotans new reason to learn how a research university can advance such goals, and about how their gifts can help.