Role of private funds rises.
Byline: The Register-Guard
When the University of Oregon announced a $2 billion fund-raising goal in 2014, the target seemed far from reach. It looks closer now that the university has passed the halfway mark. All who understand higher education's central role in the state's economic and social success will welcome the evidence of an upward trajectory - and should also contemplate what would be possible if the UO could be as bullish about public support as it is about increasing private donations.
At $1 billion, the UO has roughly tied the state record for a fund-raising campaign - Oregon State University's $1.01 billion in a drive that ended in 2014. It has eclipsed its own $853 million campaign that ended in 2008, which was then the biggest fund-raising effort by any institution in Oregon history. The share of gifts earmarked for academic programs topped 80 percent in the past year.
These donations allow the UO to endow professorships and research institutes, build classrooms and laboratories, and fund scholarships and student support programs.
Oregonians' appreciation for donors' willingness to make such investments should be accompanied by a tinge of embarrassment. The UO, a public university, has had to turn to private donors for help in improving its quality and affordability because state support has dwindled. Between 2000 and 2014, Oregon cut per-student spending at state universities by 51 percent, with only a slight restoration of support in recent years.
As the balance shifts from public to private funding, a degree of control shifts with it. Earlier this month, for instance, Chuck Lillis, chairman of the UO's Board of Trustees, and his wife Gwen gave $10 million to the UO's volcanology program. The gift is wholly congruent with the UO's aim of creating "clusters of excellence" in particular fields, and the Lillises deserve a full measure of gratitude. But it was the Lillises, not Oregonians or their representatives, who made a robust volcanology program a reality.
As donors fund the fields they deem most promising or important, the UO's areas of strength will be shaped accordingly. While the UO must insist on maintaining its academic integrity and independence, its sources of financial support exert unavoidable influence. If the result is a university with a different focus than the public might choose, Oregonians will have little basis for complaint. It is their refusal to pay the piper that invites others to call the tune.