Top Ten Tips for Higher Education Funders

Introduction by Micah Sagebiel

In early December, three of the country’s most elite higher education leaders faced questioning on Capitol Hill over incidents of antisemitism on campus. The leaders’ testimonies met stunning rebukes from across the political spectrum, and from many alumni and university donors.  

The presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lacked moral clarity in their responses to questions about whether students’ calls for a genocide of Jews violates their school codes of conduct. Worse, it revealed their selective application of the ideals of free speech and academic freedom to faculty and students. Days later, following public outrage over her testimony, UPenn’s president, Liz Magill, resigned.  

This is just the latest example of why public confidence in higher education continues to decline – and it shows the public may see the sector’s problems more clearly than its leaders.  

For years, the climate on college campuses has been growing “more inhospitable to free speech,” according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The organization’s largest survey, released in September 2023, revealed a stunning culture of self-censorship on campuses amid threats to viewpoint diversity.  

At the same time, there’s growing skepticism about the financial worth of the traditional college degree, as some believe the “college income bump” is now limited to students who pursue business or STEM degrees.  

At Philanthropy Roundtable, we believe the time is now for charitable donors – and the American public – to demand better.  

Donors, alongside the American people, are positioned to focus our institutions back on the promise of higher education: opportunity for all, academic excellence, intellectual pluralism, open debate, access based on merit and institutional neutrality.  

Bringing change to higher education will not be easy. We expect this to be a generational project. And we know that philanthropic work in higher education is complex. It is, perhaps, the most challenging sector to ensure donor intent and grant compliance.  

To this end, I am pleased to share my colleague Joanne Florino’s “Top Ten Tips for Higher Education Funders” for donors to make values-aligned, high-impact grantmaking in higher education institutions. 

These tips include allying with institutions genuinely interested in what your support will fund, establishing a clear grant agreement that protects donor rights and maintaining strong working relationships with faculty and administrators. 

This publication marks the first in a suite of resources and services, including donor advisory services leveraging the nation’s top academic thinkers, the Roundtable will launch in the coming weeks.  

We hope the tips are helpful – and we ask that you stay tuned for news from the Roundtable in the higher education domain early next year. In the meantime, please reach out if our team can be of assistance.  

Top Ten Tips for Higher Education Funders

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