Share the Wonderful — But Keep Hope Alive

September 22, 2012 | Blog

UW-Madison has a new fundraising campaign called “Share the Wonderful,” which I first learned about through the alumni magazine On Wisconsin.  In a time of fiscal austerity, all creative efforts to improve the university’s resources are welcome and laudable.  Moreover, I understand that the relatively low rate of giving among Madison’s alumni (10%) frustrates some people.  (Although, please note that last year Madison ranked 15th in the nation in total dollars from alumni–down from 2006 but not shabby.)

But I think we should also consider how “Share the Wonderful” relates to UW System and UW-Madison’s other goals and aims, such as improving the relationship with the legislature and the people of the state, and moving towards reinvigorated state financial support.  Nearly every action has an unintended consequence or two, and this one isn’t likely an exception.

Despite frequent and vehement proclamations to the contrary, the future of state support for higher education, and explanations for its decline, is not a settled matter.  Treating it as such only serves to cut off public debate and end the sifting and winnowing for better answers, for which UW is rightly famous.  

Yes, some people believe the ship has sailed, and there is no way the state will find reason to do anything but continue to cut investments in UW System and Madison.  The reasons, they say, are clear: the state’s tax base is weak, the populace views the universities as elitest and unproductive, and the model of state supported institutions is simply “old” and done. The On Wisconsin article suggests that UW Foundation President Mike Knetter embraces this perspective.

On the other hand, many analysts (including members of the faculty, students, and community members) note that while the state’s economy is indeed weak, its residents pay substantial taxes, and the issue of university funding is really about how that tax revenue is allocated. It is clear that Wisconsin has money for its priorities, and that higher education is losing out to competing priorities like prisons. Moreover, there is evidence (including from Kathy Cramer Walsh, as cited in the On Wisconsin article), that the attitudes of Wisconsin residents towards their universities are shaped by the degree to which they are engaged and served by those schools.  The current situation, in this view, is a political choice and a construction resulting from current practices, and thus is amenable to change.

Unfortunately, the case that “Share the Wonderful” seems to make (based on what I read in On Wisconsin and online) rests on the assertion that it’s time to accept facts, recognize the crisis in funding, and donate to show the legislature and Wisconsin residents that alumni believe Madison is a wonderful institution and are willing to sustain it.  This language has echoes of the New Badger Partnership campaign, and is typical of moral persuasion techniques used by higher education administrators who embrace the perspectives of business professors like Clayton Christianson, who urge them to think “rationally”about their fiscal problems, and operate as corporations do to protect their bottom line.

This effort may well succeed in generating more alumni donations.  But it may also lead alumni to continue their mostly apathetic stance toward public funding for UW-Madison, and to think that alternative approaches often taken by alumni elsewhere– e.g. using their considerable influence in lobbying business leaders and legislators– are no longer needed.  Moreover, their demonstration of support could lead taxpayers to abdicate their responsibility as well, as it has in Virginia, where UVA’s powerful alumni network is widely viewed as more than capable of meeting that university’s needs.  What this effectively does is reinforce the perception of a UW education as a private benefit accruing mainly to individuals, who are thus responsible for its costs.  Sure, that’s one way to look at things, but here is another:  alumni are people who already paid tuition in exchange for that private benefit, and now they are taxpayers and voters contributing greatly to the public good in Wisconsin–and we are asking them to pay again.  One could argue that such a responsibility is not theirs alone and should be shared, and yet that emphasis on shared responsibility is lost in a campaign framed by a declaration that state support is going away.  If alumni are not sufficiently activated to protect public higher education, the sharing will be between current students and families paying tuition, and alumni — period.  With that, the university will cease to have any explicit incentive to serve the public good, and will be solidly and squarely working for individual benefits.

Fundraising among alumni is inevitable and healthy.  But in my view it would be more productive in the current setting if “Share the Wonderful” were explicitly linked to a campaign to revive the public investment, and overt advertisement of collective and social goods produced by the university: its research, community service, public spaces, stimulation of difficult conversation, etc.  In one sense, “Share the Wonderful” is doing this, by working to increase unrestricted gifts, those that can be used for more than specific individual purposes– that’s excellent. And, there is a section on the fun website about the university’s “impact on the world.”  But that page mainly highlights important moments in UW-Madison’s life, and the degrees it awards (private benefits). It would be terrific to augment this with actual evidence of how the activities stimulated changes in the state’s landscape, health, and flourishing.  More importantly, given that the marketing research done by UW suggests alumni aren’t inspired to give more when threatened with the fallout from state support, provide opportunities for them to do more — beyond money– to protect the institution. For example, when a alumni seeks to “amplify” his or her donation– or can’t afford to make a donation–why shouldn’t the Foundation provide information about how to communicate with community members and legislators regarding the need to support the university.  For example, at the bare minimum, mention or link to this page at the Wisconsin Alumni Association. Better yet, involve people like Kathy Cramer Walsh and others who work with the people of Wisconsin to improve that page (and ones like it) to provide real, effective options for opening such conversations.

So yes, “Share the Wonderful.” But please, don’t frame our solicitations by quashing hope for turning the tide in public higher education.  Ensuring the future of Madison means turning more alumni into activists, as well as donors.  Every monetary donation should be accompanied by a letter to Wisconsin’s leaders and legislators, putting them on notice.  We will hold them accountable for their role in providing postsecondary education and all of its benefits to Wisconsin residents, and our memories are long.

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