The university business model is changing. While funding for higher education in some states has inched up to recover the losses from the Great Recession, some states continue to cut, leaving colleges and universities to fill budget gaps. In virtually all cases, that means at least an attempt at more fundraising.
Oliver Tomlin III, a senior partner at Witt/Kieffer who has focused on executive recruitment in the higher education world for more than a decade, says institutions that hardly fundraised at all before 2008 are building out their portfolios and those that have historically fundraised a lot are doing even more.
At many institutions, new responsibilities are falling to deans.
“The economic downturn in 2008 was really the pivotal point when you saw schools that had not been as aggressive in fundraising begin to get much more aggressive on fundraising and begin to rely more and more on their deans to help with the philanthropic efforts,” Tomlin said.
Only, many deans do not have any experience in fundraising when they start their new role. A standard trajectory is for a faculty member to be tapped as a department chair and then, with that leadership experience, tackle the role of dean. Fundraising doesn’t become a part of the job description until this third step, when all of a sudden it’s critical.
Almost all schools require deans to have some fundraising responsibility. Most of the work is done by development offices, but deans are an important ambassador for institutions. They must be able to pitch the merits of the school, the innovative research, the all-star talent, and open the door for major requests of wealthy donors.
Increasingly, this aptitude for fundraising is factoring into searches for institutional leaders.
“There are some schools that want a dean to have at least 50% fundraising responsibility,” Tomlin said. “That’s very different from what it was 10 years ago.”
Deans overseeing hard science divisions have historically been responsible for securing more donations than those in the soft sciences and liberal arts. Engineering, health, and business schools have needed to do more than those leading education schools or those focused on social science. Tomlin said that hasn’t changed, but the bar has been raised. Now the deans of schools in the latter category must do more and their peers must exceed even those expectations.
While there are optimistic analysts who project slow but steady increases in state and federal investment in higher education, Tomlin is not one of them. He expects to see less support from state and federal governments in the coming years, and he urges aspiring deans to sharpen their fundraising skills before taking on new positions.
For those already involved in succession planning at colleges and universities — or those who should be — Tomlin suggests laying a foundation for fundraising along the pipeline of future talent. The next generation of campus leaders will have to be campus fundraisers, after all.
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