Universities strive for billions


The University of Virginia will announce a $3 billion fundraising drive in the fall. New York University is in the middle of a $2.5 billion campaign. And officials at Columbia University say they are moving ahead with plans for the largest university campaign so far, a push to raise $4 billion over seven years.

These efforts are a sign of the fierce competition among major universities as they look to improve their rankings and images, attract students, and grab star faculty members. Officials at elite institutions nationwide say that simply to keep up they must build athletic facilities and science centers, pursue research grants and donors, court big-name faculty members and stave off raids, and lay the foundation for eye-popping fundraising campaigns.

"The whole higher education world is in a constant race," said Stephen J. Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University and a Columbia alumnus. "Money is the mother's milk of academic quality, because it pays for the people, which is to say professors and students, through salaries and scholarships, and it pays for the stuff, which is to say computers and libraries and laboratories and classrooms. Everybody needs more all the time."

Nearly every institution of higher learning feels the pressure, several university executives said, from public universities to the most elite. But for Columbia, competing against the wealthiest institutions of higher education in the nation, pressure is particularly acute.

Columbia's campaign would be the largest to date, said John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement in Support of Education, though he added that he thought a $5 billion campaign could not be far away as institutions' costs continue to rise and as the wealth of potential donors increases.

Stanford University completed the first billion-dollar fundraising drive in 1992.

"You almost can't not do this, if everybody else is doing it," said David W. Breneman, an economist and the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. "The right way to think about campaigns is that these kinds of schools are going to be in one, forever."

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which tracks university fundraising, 22 universities are in drives to raise $1 billion or more.

Even Harvard, with the largest endowment in the nation, had been planning a new campaign until the resignation of its president, Lawrence H. Summers, put the plans on hold.

While tuition at elite institutions continues to rise, that income covers less than half of the cost of a student's education, said Gordon C. Winston, a professor of economics at Williams College who has studied the finances of higher education for years. "The subsidies being given to students at the wealthy schools are huge," he said, and that is another reason that fundraising matters.

Columbia's campaign, which has been quietly under way, but will be announced formally in the next academic year, is part of a drive by its president, Lee C. Bollinger, to overcome the institution's long-standing constraints: space and money to grow.

Columbia, which at year's end had an endowment of about $5.2 billion, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers, had far less than Harvard, with $25.5 billion; Yale, $15.2 billion; and Stanford, $12.2 billion.

"All these things weave together: larger student body, larger faculty, more space in which to conduct our work," said Bollinger, who wants the university to expand physically into Harlem over the next 20 to 30 years, spreading into an area bounded by Broadway to the east, 12th Avenue to the west, 125th Street to the south and 133rd Street to the north.

This initiative, known as the Manhattanville expansion, requires the approval of the city and faces strong resistance from residents of the affected community, hundreds of whom gathered outside Columbia's main gate to protest the plan last month.

Columbia officials also think the university must invest in higher-profile research, trying to protect a leading position in some areas and moving into new ones. To stand among the very best universities, Bollinger said, "requires more international students, more courses, more opportunities for students to be exposed to the world, development of new kinds of research capacities."

Last year, Bollinger came under heavy criticism for the way he had handled a showdown in the Middle East studies department when pro-Israel Jewish students complained that they were being intimidated by pro-Palestinian professors. But Bollinger has weathered that storm, said several professors, including some past critics, and is now likely to be judged on the success of the fundraising campaign and expansion. To be critical of Bollinger's leadership at this point, said David Helfand, chairman of the astronomy department, "would be extremely counterproductive."

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