Behold the UCLA campus. Straight ahead is the Powell Library, named after Lawrence Clark Powell, a previous university librarian whose son is a recent donor of $5 million to UCLA Library. To your left is the Luskin School of Public Affairs, made possible in part due to the $100 million donation of alumnus Meyer Luskin. Down south we have the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, a graduate school renamed after Geffen’s initial $200 million gift.
In the face of decreasing state funding, private donations may become an appealing alternative to universities such as UCLA to maintain reasonable tuition levels while simultaneously compensating for the gap in funding. As a public entity, the university is meant to serve the people of California. However, with the elements of bias inherent in private donations, the university may come to serve the interests of the private sector rather than the needs of its students.
The concept of private donations exists as one familiar to Bruins. News of donations from major companies like Mattel and individuals like Kevin Love have been constantly appearing and reappearing in the news cycle covering UCLA for the past years.
[Related: Donations influence admissions]
Reuben Ayala, regional director of the UCLA Fund, describes the donation process as a three-step process: cultivation, solicitation and stewardship. The first step, cultivation, is to introduce potential donors to the developments UCLA has made in certain areas to foster a sense of pride in donating to UCLA.
The second step is solicitation, asking for a donation, which is ideally a positive experience, Ayala said. This step is very much personalized to the donor’s needs and abilities. One way is to tailor the donation amount to a donor’s financial capability.
“UCLA prides themselves in being donor-centric,” Ayala said. “The university by and large wants to respect donors’ wishes.”
The third is stewardship. This step is enacted to ensure that donors feel properly thanked immediately and appropriately. This includes asking donors to attend a scholarship brunch with recipients of donations or inviting them to a special lecture about a research program they may have donated to. This is, again, to reinforce a donor’s sense that their contribution is worthwhile.
What has to be acknowledged in the conversation about the impact of donations on the university level is that no donation can be harmful when considering its pure monetary value. At the end of the day, money is money. Major donors should be applauded for their contribution if we are looking at the pure-use value of donations.
[Previously on The Quad: UCLA’s David Geffen Square proposal is a cry for money]
However, private endowments contribute far more than monetary gains to a university. Private endowments carry long-term impacts such as donor-university relations and university prestige.
The pitfall of private donations lie in the donor-centric basis of private donations. A donor-centric philosophy – allowing donors to choose where their money goes – is incentivizing toward givers as it allows them to retain a sense of ownership of their monetary property through personal choice of where their money goes. However, this same philosophy introduces bias into the funding process and risks unbalanced development between university programs.
The result of donor-centric private donations, in contrast to donating to an overall fund that UCLA allocates, is the emergence of certain areas such as the Geffen School of Medicine that receive ample additional funding while other areas of the university lack the benefit of private funding as donors are less interested or less aware of their needs. Although many current donors, including Luskin himself, have a direct connection to the UCLA experience such as an undergraduate, graduate or professional career as a Bruin, there are other donors who do not have such a direct understanding of university needs.
Major donations like Geffen’s can set off a chain reaction. Donors may have a tendency to give only to more successful programs of UCLA, such as the School of Medicine, as these are more well known and more successful due to additional resources and attention.
Brittany Schoof, director of young alumni and student giving at the UCLA Fund, said that one of the contributions of private donations at UCLA is supplemental programs that enrich the college experience such as the Food Closet or Residential Life programs. A lot of federal funding instead is going to fund basic programs such as classes or library books.
While private donations may fund supplemental programs now, especially donations of minor amounts, there comes the possibility that eventually, private donations will start to fund basic programs, which we glimpse now with major donations like Luskin’s. The success of private donations in being able to fund these basic programs should not replace the usage and feasibility of using state funding to do so.
UCLA should not view private donations as a long-term savior to budget cuts. Private donations as a method of advancing the institution are only a temporary solution in filling this gap in funding. The entire system is vulnerable to a privatization of university interests due to the donor-centric focus of cultivation, solicitation and stewardship. UCLA is not the only university that falls within this category. Rather, it is a victim of a larger problem, with the UC higher education system succumbing to privatization and decreasing state funding, which has driven its universities to fall back on other methods of profit.