Five Game-Changing Gifts To Higher Education In 2022
The billions of dollars donated to colleges and universities this year will support everything from training nurse practitioners and mental health workers to climate research.
Despite the overhang of the Covid-19 pandemic, and anxiety about an oncoming recession, 2022 was a strong year for giving to higher education. It was also a year when some intriguing trends emerged. We’ve identified five of those trends and a single exceptional gift that exemplifies each.
Taken together, these gifts show not only philanthropists’ growing interest in spreading their dollars more widely, but also their desire to address some of the social problems made more obvious by Covid-19. That explains why two of our noteworthy gifts involve the training of nurse practitioners to provide health care to underserved populations and the education of more child mental health workers. A third: a blockbuster $1.1 billion gift for climate change research.
Finally, for some light relief—we highlight the weirdest gift of the year.
Trend 1: Spread The Dollars Widely
Boston billionaire Rob Hale Jr., founder and CEO of Granite Telecommunications, and his wife, Karen, set a goal of giving away $1 million a week in 2022. Mostly, they’ve focused on helping smaller charities build up their endowments. But they took that spread-the-charitable-wealth strategy to the next level with a novel three part gift to Roxbury Community College in Boston.
In addition to giving $1 million to create an endowed fund to provide scholarships and other financial support for students at the two-year college, the couple gave each 2022 graduate $500 to keep and another $500 to donate to a person or organization of their choice.
“I thought the gift was really interesting because the donors helped the students personally, they supported the students to themselves give to causes they care about, and then they contributed to the institution’s endowment,” says Genevieve Shaker, associate professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
The Hales are following a somewhat similar path to philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, who has doled out $14 billion to 1,600 nonprofits and has given large gifts to smaller, less resourced schools, including community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, hispanic-serving institutions and tribal schools. This past May and June, The Center for Effective Philanthropy surveyed 277 nonprofits that received gifts from Scott and found that for nine in 10 of them, it was the largest donation they had ever received. About two-thirds reported the gift would bolster their long-term financial stability and 83% said it would significantly strengthen their mission.
Many high-profile donors ask colleges to earmark their millions for specific programs, scholarships or capital projects, but Scott has made it a point of donating without strings attached. “What she has sought to do is identify institutions which are going to make a real difference in terms of broadening opportunities for education and she has trusted them to utilize her gifts where they see the greatest need.’’ says Sue Cunningham, CEO of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
In 2022, most of Scott’s education philanthropy wasn’t targeted to colleges, but to K-12 public and charter schools and organizations supporting teachers. She also gave generously to Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and Boys & Girls Club chapters.
Trend 2: Make It the Biggest-Ever
Shaker says 2022 stands out for the range of colleges booking the largest gifts in their histories. A gift to McPherson College, a liberal arts college in central Kansas with about 830 undergraduates, broke two notable records—not only the largest gift it has ever received, but also the biggest gift to any small liberal arts college in U.S. history, according to data from the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The gift, from the estate of an anonymous donor, is a $500 million double match commitment—meaning McPherson will need to raise $250 million by June 30, 2023 from other donors to get the full $500 million. So far, it has brought in about $145 million.
Assuming the college meets its goal, the $750 million total will become part of its endowment, which now totals just $53.5 million. The funds will support a number of campus initiatives, including construction of a 55,000 square foot student life center; a center for rural and community health science and, most intriguing, the student debt project, which aims to help students graduate with little or no debt by matching (at a 25% rate) what they earn from work while in school.
In another notable biggest, Samford University, a Christian university in Birmingham, Ala., received $100 million from the estate of the late Marvin Mann, university alum and founder of printer maker Lexmark International Inc. That was not only the largest gift in Samford’s history, but the largest sum ever donated to any Alabama college.
Trend 3: Finally Putting Nurses First
Huge gifts to medical schools are nothing new—that’s why there’s a Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
But in 2022, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, big-name donors recognized with their dollars the importance of nurses and the need for more of them, notes Shaker.
Most notably, billionaire philanthropist Leonard A. Lauder, chairman emeritus of The Estée Lauder Companies Inc., made two sizable gifts to promote the training of nurse practitioners. In the largest gift ever to a nursing school, he gave $125 million to the University of Pennsylvania nursing school to set up a tuition free program to train nurse practitioners to work in underserved communities. Lauder, a Penn alum, said in a statement that during Covid-19 he saw the fault-lines in medical care that developed and believes NPs “are key to solving this country’s acute shortage of quality health care.”
Lauder also gave $52 million to Hunter College of the City University of New York (the biggest gift in its history) for a new nurse practitioner program at the school. The gift will also fund $30,000 stipends for 25 NP students a year who train in gerontology and mental health and commit to working in hospitals and clinics run by the public New York City Health and Hospitals Corp. Lauder’s late wife, Evelyn, was a Hunter alum.
In September, billionaire Carlyle Group co-founder William E. Conway Jr. and his wife, Joanne, gave $14 million to the University of Virginia’s school of nursing. The University of Central Florida received a $10 million gift that will go towards building a new nursing school.
Meanwhile, philanthropists continued to shower money on medical research and medical facilities. But one had a notable Covid-19 twist: Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin gifted $9.4 million worth of cryptocurrency to the University of Maryland from his Balvi Filantropic Fund for the study of air disinfection to prevent future pandemics.
Trend 4: More Money For Mental Health
The worsening mental health of students and children has been a tricky yet urgent problem for colleges and schools in recent years, especially in the wake of Covid-19-related campus shutdowns. This year, philanthropists have taken note.
Most notably: In March, billionaire Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie gave $425 million to the University of Oregon to create the Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health. The new institute, based in Portland, Ore., will partner with K-12 schools in the area to provide mental health resources to schoolchildren. The University will also launch a new undergraduate program that aims to graduate 200 child behavioral health specialists each year.
Meanwhile, in February, the University of California at Irvine received $57.7 million for depression research and treatment from the estate of Audrey Steele Burnand. And in July, the Scanlan Family Foundation gave $15 million to the University of Iowa for its school focused on children’s mental health. The University says it’s the largest gift its School of Education has received in its 175 year history.
Trend 5: Big Bucks for Climate Research
In May, Stanford University announced it had received its largest gift ever—$1.1 billion from venture capitalist John Doerr and wife, Ann, to establish the Doerr School of Sustainability, its first new school in 70 years.
While the gift was particularly notable, the Doerrs are hardly the only billionaires putting their dollars into research on the environment. The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa announced a $50 million commitment from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerburg and his wife Pricilla Chan in January to support the university’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, which studies changing ocean conditions, ocean ecosystems, coastal resilience and marine organisms. The money will fund coral reef restoration projects and internships, mentoring and graduate research fellowships for new coral scientists and ocean conservationists.
The $50 million, which the couple will pay in installments over 7 years, is the largest gift (see Trend 2) the university has ever received. But it’s hardly the biggest gift the Facebook founder and his pediatrician wife have made; last year, for example, they pledged $500 million to their alma mater, Harvard, for an institute studying intelligence.
There were other record-breaking sustainability gifts in 2022. In October, The University of California, Davis announced its largest individual gift ever: a $50 million pledge from billionaire entrepreneurs Stewart and Lynda Resnick (owners of The Wonderful Co.) for studying sustainable agriculture. In July, Tuck, Dartmouth University’s business school, announced it had received $52.1 million from an anonymous donor to endow a recurring summit “with the goal of inspiring action to improve the health, wealth, and sustainability of people and the planet in the 21st century.” Tuck, too, said it was the largest gift it had ever received.
Higher Education’s Weirdest Gift
Michael Morey, founder of the wood chipper business Bandit Industries Inc., and his wife Diane, gave 35 classic cars to Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, in December. The cars, which include several Chevrolet Bel Airs, a 1968 Pontiac Firebird, and a 1937 Chevrolet Pickup, are valued at about $2 million, but the college is hoping they’ll fetch even more than that at auction. Northwood will keep one of the cars, a 1958 Chevrolet Corvette, to display at the university and feature in a student-run auto show. Proceeds from the remaining 34 cars will fund an endowed scholarship and renovations of a courtyard on campus.
Colleges have received a menagerie of odd gifts over the years. In 2000, St. Lawrence University in New York was gifted all future royalties from the popular holiday song “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Indiana University of Pennsylvania received 20 rheas, an omnivorous bird similar to an ostrich, in 2001. In 2006, the Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Arizona received 770 pounds of petrified dinosaur dung from Fred and Katrina Thiele, owners of a fossils and minerals store. Some gifts have been deemed by schools as just too weird to accept. The State University of New York at Binghamton declined a cranberry bog in 2003, and in 2007 George Washington University turned down a pet cemetery where J. Edgar Hoover’s dog was buried.
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