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A Conversation with Barbara Lawton

Institutional Culture

A Conversation with Barbara Lawton

a successful department chair envisions a strong department

Barbara Lawton was the 43rd lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, a position in which she served two terms. She served 10 years on the National Leadership Council of the Association of American Colleges & Universities Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative and cochaired WI’s campaign for LEAP. Lawton currently sits on the advisory boards of the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service and of the Millennial Action Project, a national organization building bipartisan political cooperation through millennial leadership.

Lawton recently sat down with AL Editor Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti to discuss the increasing influence of fundraising in higher education.


AL: Fundraising has long been the bread and butter of survival for private academic institutions, but today we see it listed in job descriptions as a required performance dimension for deans and department chairs in public institutions as well. What drives this shift? Are the drivers different in the private and public spheres?


Lawton: Fundraising for public universities today goes beyond the traditional realm of scholarships, athletics, endowed chairs, special events/speakers, and so on to raising money for general operations. A variety of factors conspire to feed an increased need for private donors’ support: steady declines in states’ per-student funding (now at an average of 18 percent less than prerecession levels, but as much as 55 percent less), public/political distaste for tuition increases, and a steady decrease in public interest research (with anticipation of loss of more federal dollars on the way).

In the private realm, steady tuition increases don’t keep pace with increased spending on more and bigger scholarships, bidding wars for big-name faculty, and, on a parallel track with public universities, on administration and student support services. In both settings, foundations and development staff today turn [to the] the academy for help fundraising—to keep programs robust and, in some cases, to keep the doors open.

AL: Is there a relationship between this trend in academia today and the broader political context in which universities and colleges operate?


Lawton: Yes. The great public universities used to be shaped and advanced by democratic governance, but this era of scant resources and austerity policies makes them as dependent on large donors as those elected officials deciding their fate. The donors push to influence public policy, with specific emphasis on reducing taxes, and to influence the design for academia’s future, often advocating corporate models. Private colleges wade in this same pool of wealthy donors.

Ambitious academic leaders and policymakers alike can fall prey to the temptation to sacrifice what is important for what seems urgent: raising money. Big donations to either a college or candidate attach to expectations for access and for influence. When fundraising becomes the urgent priority, democratic and shared governance, defined by decision making that emanates from studied reflection and deliberation, suffer in both settings.

AL: How does the growing wealth divide in the country affect this shift in priorities in higher education?


Lawton: In the United States, higher education has historically opened the door to equal opportunity. Today the price of admission to postsecondary degrees is increasing even as those degrees become necessary to access this fast-changing 21st-century economy. In recent elections, an overwhelming number of voters in both political parties made clear their sense of being relegated to the sidelines in a (for them, rumored) growing economy. Their nearly complete loss of trust in government and its officials and institutions creates a widening gap that could be bridged with greater access to higher education, but those voters don’t buy it.

Leaders in both realms aren’t selling it well. We’re losing sight of the foundational value of our universities and colleges to democratic government and to citizens’ well-being across the country, of higher education as an essential public good, its commitment to freedom and nondiscrimination, and respect for truth: the principles that form the bedrock of American society.

And while we all must admit that our aging democratic institutions deserve a reboot for radically changed times, we must also acknowledge academia’s vulnerability to having priorities for redesign guided not by measured debate among many, but by the instincts of a wealthy few. That vulnerability emerges in missions subverted with assaults on standards of scholarship and academic freedom—in multiple disciplines and on multiple fronts.

I also feel compelled to note the painful irony that the growing concentration of wealth and the subsequent deepening inequality gap [in society] feed and/or follow a growing resource gap between the most elite schools and the rest.

AL: Some perceive that colleges have invested more heavily in amenities than in the education and preparation of students to make their contribution in the world. Has the admissions arms race and its maintenance jeopardized the fiscal health of these institutions?

Lawton:Fancy recreation complexes require significant fundraising up front and increased ongoing maintenance costs in budgets to follow. They also play an important role in student, faculty, and staff recruitment as well as in alumni engagement. They improve student health and provide a site for building community on campus. But they are not revenue generators and may indeed impact the breadth of academic programming and fiscal viability of an institution.

There are other critical budget lines to study to examine issues of viability. For example, one study finds the average number of campus administration positions increased 60 percent from 1993–2009 and notes that this number is 10 times the growth of tenured faculty positions over the same period.

AL: Raising significant public and private funds implies developing strong donor relationships. How do donor relationships influence the institution’s strategic plan?


Lawton:Job descriptions and performance measures adjust to the demands of supporting those relationships. Because philanthropists are rarely interested in making large unrestricted gifts to support general operations, they may want input on curriculum, the department’s or institution’s strategic plan, hiring, or shaping students’ ideology. The need to allocate time to fundraise can reshape deans’ and department chairs’ leadership and even rebalance budgets. Significant differences exist in opportunities for raising money for the humanities and science research or for comparative literature and engineering. Thus, certain courses—or even entire majors—may be eliminated without adequate private support.

AL: What new skills and foci are required of deans and department chairs as they add fundraising to their responsibilities?


Lawton: Development calls for public relations skills, genuine curiosity about new perspectives brought to the institution, the capacity to listen well, a different kind of negotiation in problem solving, creativity in matching opportunity to interests and in building compelling narratives to sell those opportunities, the strength and patience to navigate frequent tensions in matching donor passion with departmental needs, and agility in balancing academic and administrative work.

Donors respond to fundraising priorities that are actionable and result in quantifiable results. A successful dean or department chair will set clear priorities inside a strong vision for the institution and department and will always be ready to articulate past accomplishments and challenges ahead as the argument for ongoing investment in their success.


Read the second half of this interview on Academic Leader Today at https://www.academicleadertoday.com/news-and-trends/fundraising-higher-education/

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