Fundraising office looks to avert impact on alumni giving

The University’s fundraising office is looking to calm alumni concerns about GW’s reputation after being booted off the U.S. News & World Report rankings last week.

Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations Mike Morsberger emailed a conciliatory note to alumni Friday, two days after U.S. News unseated GW from its No.-51 spot. The office has also briefed staffers on how to handle questions about the unranking on the phone or at events.

“The [ranking] situation is regretable, but again, I do not think it will substantively impact our advancement efforts,” Morsberger told The Hatchet. “We are the same university we were a week ago.”

GW, a tuition-dependent school that’s playing catch-up on development, has sometimes used the U.S. News ranking to encourage alumni to donate – potentially creating implications for the unranking beyond whether or not it will impact prospective students.

The development office emailed alumni in June about financially supporting GW, pointing out that their donations account for 5 percent of U.S. News ranking methodology.

“Your gift last year also made sure I graduated from a top 50 school,” the email written by a Class of 2012 alumna read. “Five percent makes a big difference in how our university is viewed all over the world. It means the diplomas my classmates and I received upon graduation will have a bigger impact as we look for jobs.”

Morsberger said his office and the Alumni House have fielded about a dozen calls or emails in the aftermath of the unranking – though he said most were from supportive alumni who asked how they could help in the fallout.

University President Steven Knapp said Wednesday that he did not think the unranking would affect alumni giving. Morsberger said on Sunday that he did not think it would have a “meaningful impact.”

But some alumni said the ousting would make them less willing to write checks to GW.

Kirsten Spittel, who graduated two years ago from the Elliott School of International Affairs, said she’s donated twice to GW, but the incident surrounding the unranking – the inflating of admissions data for more than 10 years – capped her enthusiasm to give more often.

“It’s frustrating to say I just graduated from this school that’s no longer ranked,” Spittel said. “If I do continue to give, it’ll be focused on a particular program, not the University as a whole.”

U.S. News knocked the University off its rankings six days after Knapp released an email message saying GW had been inflating freshman admissions statistics.

Robert Morse, the U.S. News director of data research, said GW was moved to the “unranked” category because the magazine has a policy of not re-ranking schools after they report incorrect data that would prompt a shift in slots. The unranking will only last until fall 2013 if GW certifies its data.

Knapp and other administrators said they were taken aback by the magazine’s decision, while new outlets and admissions specialists fanned the fire, lumping in GW’s name with other universities who are now blackballed for data errors.

The University set fundraising and Alumni Weekend turnout records in the last year. It is also in the quiet phase of a massive capital campaign expected to launch in 2014, and relying on heavy fundraising for ambitious projects like the $275 million Science and Engineering Hall and about $300 million strategic plan.

Aggressive fundraising goals – like trying to raise more than $2 million weekly – is never easy, Morsberger said.

Michael Moffett, who graduated in 2011 with a journalism degree, said when he worked at the student call center Colonial Connection, his advisers urged callers to use the U.S. News ranking as a way to convince alumni to donate.

He said callers would tell alumni that if they gave even a small amount, it could help boost the alumni giving statistic worth 5 percent of the U.S. News methodology, helping the ranking and upping the value of a GW degree.

Now, Moffett said, “I feel like my degree was devalued.”

Elliot Bell-Krasner, who graduated in 2008 with a degree in political science, said he would continue to give small donations to the political science department even though he was “very disappointed” over the misreporting of admissions data.

“The point is that George Washington University is the same university it was right before the story broke,” he said. “I have my diploma hanging on my wall and it does not change the quality of the university.”

Scott Backer, a 2012 graduate, said he has seen inflamed posts about the unranking on Facebook and Twitter, but that most of his friends brushed it off. He said it doesn’t change their views on their alma mater.

“The unranking means absolutely nothing. If they dropped us 100 places, then it would mean something. We’re the same school,” he said.

Priya Anand and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.

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