November 16, 2018

Philanthropy in Public Higher Education

Hard as it is to believe it’s November, I hope you’ve been enjoying the change of season. I’ve always found fall invigorating and the best time for reflection. This year, especially, this echoes my sense of events here at Mason.

First, let’s celebrate Amazon’s choice of Northern Virginia for one of its second headquarters. Amazon’s decision is yet another reflection of Mason’s leadership in advancing knowledge, driving innovation, and fostering prosperity: congratulations to all! The company’s requirement of a “highly educated labor pool” at its ideal location belies the transformative potential of Amazon’s arrival for George Mason University as a source of knowledge and a pipeline for our graduates to the innovation economy.

Not only will Mason create a School of Computing, leveraging the power of computing across a variety of fields, but we are standing up a new Institute for Digital InnovAtion (IDIA). Now more than ever, our programs will contribute to the knowledge vanguard, stimulate the development of new products and services, and elevate innovation capacity in the region and far beyond.

As exciting as these external events are, I also would like to focus on another, important development within the Mason community and share some thoughts elicited by the experience of chairing Mason’s Internal Review Committee on gift agreements.

As you will recall, last spring, President Cabrera charged this committee to review all active donor agreements supporting Mason faculty, as well as the university’s gift acceptance policies and practices. As he has noted, trust and transparency are essential to our mission. That report now has been released and can be accessed here.

In our knowledge economy, a larger-than-ever population desires and requires access to excellent higher education and innovative research. Paradoxically, however, we have seen unprecedented reductions in public investment in higher education. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that most states have cut higher education funding so deeply that, on average, states spent 16% less per student in 2017 than in 2008.

To meet their mission, many universities struggle to make up the shortfall by raising tuition and fees, reducing academic opportunities and limiting student services. At Mason, we work hard to keep our tuition increases moderate while continuing to expand our academic and research programs.

That said, and reflecting the situation of top-tier universities across the U.S., private philanthropy has come to play a significant role in supplementing faculty, student, and programmatic support. Further, its importance will only increase: we are unlikely to see a return of public funding to earlier levels as higher education competes with other demands, such as secondary education, healthcare and entitlements.

Regardless of your perspective on this issue, I am sure we can all agree that we should pay close attention to the implications of this trend, from the identifiably actual to the possibly perceived. Philanthropy funds buildings, ideas, programs, and affords thousands of students access to higher education. But some are wondering if private funding could affect the trust and openness of public institutions. I believe we can, and must, understand and address these dilemmas. In fact, some of our own faculty are experts in the subject matter.

After carefully reviewing the policy and practices of our academic peers, one of the most profound lessons I learned is just how important it is to understand and appreciate the balance involved in upholding the core principles of our institution — academic independence and advancing the public interest – without losing sight of our responsibilities to engage and inspire donors to advance our mission. To achieve that balance, we must approach philanthropy with discernment and prudence, engendering public trust through transparency and engagement in the gift acceptance process.

The Internal Review Committee laid out a policy framework for us to navigate these challenges. But that should not be the end of the process. I am inviting the broader Mason community to engage in thoughtful, multifaceted conversations recognizing the complex and nuanced nature of these tensions, with the aim of securing a shared understanding of how to embrace philanthropy as a means to achieve our mission.

In addition to enabling us to better respond to the transformed funding landscape, how might the steps we take position Mason as a thought leader on philanthropy in public higher education?

Please allow me to open the dialogue by saying I respect all perspectives on this issue, and we should understand them fully as a community. Toward that end, as always, feel more than welcome to share your feedback and comments at the end of this blog.

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