College leaders face new role Fund raising supplants academics for officials at nation's universities

November 30, 1997|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Robert Chambers sometimes loses track of the day of the week. Worse, he forgets where he is.

He'll go 20 weeks without a day entirely to himself. He takes his job home with him -- 300 yards from his office.

If the job weren't so interesting, Chambers says, he'd probably have resigned long ago.

Chambers is a college president, the self-described "chief operating officer" of Western Maryland College in Westminster.

It's a job that's changed considerablyduring the 13 years Chambers has headed the private college. For Chambers and all other college chiefs, raising money has replaced academics as the primary focus of their work.

The word "cultivation" -- as in priming potential donors to give generously -- has jumped to the top of the college president's lexicon.

To get an idea of the changing duties of the college president, The Sun interviewed four chief executives of Maryland colleges, drawn from a cross-section of experience and school types.

Three of the presidents are raising millions of dollars in capital campaigns. Chambers, 58, will wind up Western Maryland's $40 million campaign, called "The Defining Moment," at the last second of New Year's Eve, 1999. "It'll be quite a party!" he says.

Calvin Burnett, 65, and Hoke Smith, 66, head Coppin State College and Towson University, respectively. They're engaged in the University System of Maryland's recently announced $700 million campaign, to be concluded in 2002.

The new kid on the block, Mary Pat Seurkamp, 51, has been president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland for a mere five months. She's just getting acclimated, but one of her first jobs is to lay the groundwork for a major Notre Dame fund-raising effort.

Two of the colleges are public and two private, but the motivation for fund raising is common to all four executives.

The private schools, forced to rely on tuition income for survival, desperately need to pad slim endowments. Income from endowments can be used for student financial aid and faculty salaries.

The publics, which didn't need to raise money privately when Hoke Smith came to Towson from Drake University in Iowa 18 years ago, now need to do so -- and in a hurry. State subsidies have been stagnant or declining for the better part of a decade, while tuitions have increased to make up the difference.

"Further increases in tuition will become politically unacceptable," says Smith, who likens his job to "riding a bike on a high wire. You've got to keep going in order not to fall off. You've got to take risks. If you stop and not take risks, that's a sure way to fall off."

Each of the schools has its own set of fund-raising challenges. Coppin and Towson, for example, have relatively few wealthy alumni because until the late 1970s, most of their graduates became teachers.

"We've found that the larger gifts come from individuals, not corporations," says Burnett, in his 28th year as Coppin State's president. "So we have to find people who have a special interest in helping the kind of students we have, students with great economic needs."

Burnett says Coppin State has never had a private gift in seven figures -- a $300,000 donation to the nursing school is the biggest so far -- and he doesn't know of a millionaire Coppin State alumnus. "But that doesn't mean someone from the outside couldn't give us a million -- or a few million," he says, laughing.

Burnett says he spends 60 to 70 percent of his professional time in activities related to fund raising. In 1970, when he had to crawl through a window to get to his desk at the West North Avenue school -- the keys to the president's office had been lost -- he spent 80 percent of his time on academic matters, Burnett says.

The Coppin State president was a shy and reluctant fund-raiser when the university system Board of Regents started talking about the major "development" campaign a year ago.

"Actually," he says now, "I'm beginning to enjoy it. Talking with people is an opportunity in itself. Not to sound trite, but we all grow by what we learn from other people. The worst they can tell me is no."

At Notre Dame, Seurkamp says she was advised by a faculty member to "enjoy my honeymoon, while it lasts." The first president of the North Baltimore women's college who isn't a nun in the order of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Seurkamp has been making the rounds of the city's power elite.

"I prefer to call them the significant leadership instead of the heavy hitters," Seurkamp says. "We certainly want people to know that financial support is important, but these people are also a great source of advice.

"You're never out of the mode of thinking about how to build support for the college, even if right now it's advice rather than donations."

Sports and the accouterments of sports also play a major role in the life of a contemporary college president. Knowing that many alumni care most about athletics, the president entertains before and after major events, home and away.

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