Staff Editorial: Keep the fundraising campaign focused on students

Media Credit: Cartoon by Sophie McTear | Design Editor
In a move former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg would surely approve of, GW threw a lavish, Gatsby-esque party to announce the launch of a $1 billion fundraising campaign. University President Steven Knapp toasted with fundraisers in June.

If GW wanted students to scoff, then a lavish, Gatsby-esque, champagne-soaked party at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate to announce the launch of a $1 billion fundraising campaign was a surefire way to do it.

But we can’t be so quick to judge. There’s a far more nuanced story to tell here that shows, for the most part, that the University has student-focused priorities in mind.

GW announced in June that it had already raised half a billion dollars. After quietly securing donations over the past three years, the fundraising office hopes to gather the rest by the summer of 2018. Altogether, the University plans to put $500 million toward faculty hires and academics, $400 million toward financial aid and student programs and $100 million toward construction projects.

This money will fund the ambitious goals GW set in its strategic plan, which the Board of Trustees approved in 2013. Over the next 10 years, the University will follow this road map, which emphasizes academics, research and top-tier faculty – all commendable priorities that treat this institution how it should be treated: as a place of learning.

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Despite the specifics laid out in the strategic plan, the breakdown of this $1 billion is still ambiguous: The only indication we have as to where the money is going is a list of vague buzzwords. We still have questions about how much GW will increase financial aid, which student programs will benefit and how exactly GW plans to invest in academics.

That’s a cause for concern, especially since we know how the effort, dubbed “Making History: The Campaign for GW,” will operate: Before they pull out a checkbook, donors will have the ability to earmark their cash for certain programs. As long as their request falls under one of these vague umbrella categories, it will move forward as administrators cash a check and rename a building.

Officials have reassured us that donors’ interests will have to align reasonably well with the vision for the University. Apparently, that means we’re putting our faith in administrators and fundraisers to narrowly tailor “GW’s vision” and hold fast to it.

But do fundraisers, who often spend months courting donors with their eyes on the largest checks possible, really know where student priorities lie from year to year?

That’s why it’s important that student voices are kept in mind from now until the end of the campaign. Without them, GW will fail to operate as a learning institution and put business before the desires of its students.

We know from recent experience that when students’ voices are loud, clear and unified, change can happen, and quickly, too. It was the strong advocacy of Student Association president Julia Susuni that led the University to decide it would centralize student health services in the Marvin Center this year.

Based on this precedent, University officials should rest assured that if they invite students to the table, their input will be well-informed and forward-thinking. Student leaders should have the ear of key fundraisers to ensure that student interests are not on the back burner while GW courts donors.

There are many reasons why a student representative on the Board of Trustees – which includes some of the University’s most powerful fundraisers and donors – isn’t feasible or even necessary.

But University President Steven Knapp was well aware of Susuni’s priorities when it came to student health, and SA presidents meet regularly with top administrators. They even get five minutes to speak in front of the Board of Trustees at every meeting. As long as those lines of communication are kept open, and student leaders are on target when detailing student priorities, it should be easy for GW to keep those preferences in mind when accepting checks.

Plus, there’s nothing that can encourage young alumni to donate to their alma mater more than knowing their money will go toward issues students care about, such as affordability, academics and student programs. And the University will need alumni giving to help meet its $1 billion goal: Typically in campaigns of this size, alumni give about a third of the total haul. With just 10 percent of alumni donating each year, GW faces a steep challenge.

There’s a right way for the University to raise $1 billion. If officials keep student priorities in mind throughout this campaign, we can rest easy knowing that years from now, we will be proud to say we earned our degrees from GW.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Robin Jones Kerr and contributing opinions editor Sarah Blugis, based on discussions with managing director Justin Peligri, culture editor Emily Holland, copy editor Rachel Smilan-Goldstein and design editor Sophie McTear.

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