Foundation Officers Encourage College and University Presidents to Strengthen Their Community Ties

During CIC’s 29th Conversation between Foundation Officers and College and University Presidents, more than 100 college and university presidents, foundation representatives, and State Council executives explored “Philanthropy in a Changing Context: Foundations and Independent Higher Education.” Held at TIAA Headquarters in New York City on October 15, 2018, the conference included presentations from officers of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the TIAA Institute, the Teagle Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and Strada Education Network before gathering in small discussion groups over lunch.

Keynote speaker Eugene M. Tobin, senior program officer for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, set the tone in his address on “Higher Education and the Public Good.” Tobin highlighted some major sources of fragmentation in American society (such as mass incarceration, the opioid crisis, and the increasing social discord that even alienates neighbors from one another), and he contemplated what colleges and universities are doing to address these issues. He challenged the presidents: If your institutions were to disappear tomorrow, who would miss them? He encouraged presidents to focus even more on serving the public good. Tobin invoked John F. Kennedy’s words at the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College in 1963: “What good is a private college or university unless it is serving a great national purpose?”

Tobin called on colleges and universities to collaborate with surrounding communities to tackle issues of local as well as national significance, a call that was echoed in presentations by other foundation representatives. Henry Luce Foundation Vice President Sean Buffington presented liberal arts colleges as a network of centers for humanistic research that can provide their local communities with access to scholarship from the humanities and social sciences. He said that the Henry Luce Foundation is particularly interested in funding projects that are locally based and involve partnerships with local organizations. One recently funded project is American University’s DC Humanities Truck, which brings pop-up exhibitions on local history to communities in Washington, DC, and acts as a mobile lab to collect people’s stories on such issues as immigration and homelessness. Rebeca Vargas, president and CEO of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, highlighted projects that encourage Mexican American students in the United States to explore their heritage in Mexico. In one program, the binational El Sueño Mexicano (Mexican Dream), students spend four weeks in Mexico working with small-business owners in indigenous communities to help the businesses thrive and promote ecotourism while connecting with their heritage.

For Andrew Delbanco, president of the Teagle Foundation, a fundamental purpose of higher education is to prepare students to be good citizens. He argued that “colleges have a duty to prepare students not only as getters and spenders, but also as citizens with duties as well as rights.” He presented a new Teagle initiative, Education for American Civic Life, which developed from a concern that students graduate college without understanding U.S. governing institutions. The grant program aims to ensure that students acquire a balanced view of American history and learn what the Constitution actually says.

Several speakers connected the drive toward community engagement and social change with the survival of the humanities and the liberal arts, urging colleges and universities to make these disciplines more relevant and necessary to the world outside the academy. Noting the decline in humanities enrollments, Tobin called on the presidents to emphasize the value of the humanities for practical life. According to Tobin, “Liberal arts education will not remain the soul of higher education if it looks more like the periphery than the core.”

Both Delbanco and Buffington echoed this sentiment, proposing new directions for these disciplines outside the classroom. Delbanco accepted the reality that students and parents seek degree programs that offer marketable skills and suggested that colleges support a liberal arts education through the majors students are actually pursuing, rather than trying to shore up declining, static majors. Buffington also acknowledged the shift in institutional priorities to match student and parental expectations, but he argued that downsizing humanities departments does not herald the death of the humanities; rather, it reveals how closely we associate the humanities only with the academy. As Buffington phrased it, instead of “speaking from the academy, to the academy, about the academy,” proponents of the humanities and social sciences should look at how these disciplines are deployed outside the university, often under different names.

Several foundations plan to tackle major social problems through their philanthropy. Daryl A. Graham, senior vice president for philanthropy at the Strada Education Network, highlighted Strada’s commitment to strengthen the connection between higher education and work. The new Strada Institute for the Future of Work will conduct research about the future of learning and work to inform Strada’s investment strategy, philanthropy, and national engagement. Stephanie Bell-Rose, head of the TIAA Institute, introduced a new report on millennial financial literacy (Millennial Financial Literacy and Fin-tech Use: Who Knows What in the Digital Era) that highlights the generation that is poised to become the largest in the U.S. population by 2019.  

For Sarah L. Simmons, assistant director for science education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), science education is integral to America’s future because many current global issues, such as food shortages and climate change, will have to be solved by future scientists. With this goal in mind, HHMI wants to accelerate progress toward greater diversity in STEM disciplines. HHMI’s new Inclusive Excellence initiative challenges colleges and universities to examine their histories and address the ways that they have created barriers for students from underrepresented groups and made them feel unwelcome in STEM disciplines.

In addition to discussing these larger issues, the presenters also provided suggestions for successful grant proposals. A recurring theme was the importance of collaboration: between institutions and community organizations, among institutions, among academic departments, and between faculty members and administrators. For the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, successful proposals must demonstrate an equal partnership between the college or university and community organizations. Tobin emphasized that community organizations should be included in every step of the proposal stage, rather than being invited to contribute only once the proposal has been accepted. Delbanco said that Teagle looks for proposals that show “good will” between faculty members and administrators at the institution, and he praised initiatives that encourage collaboration between faculty members across disciplines to benefit undergraduate education. As he quipped, “Undergraduate education is the main thing that brings the faculty together to collaborate, except for complaining about the president.”

A 2017 report from the TIAA Institute and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors also shows the importance of collaboration. Among the findings of Achieving Success in Postsecondary Education: Trends in Philanthropy, Bell-Rose noted that many foundations prioritize giving to consortia over individual colleges. The report highlights such funding priorities as removing barriers to transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions, providing access to college for underrepresented groups, and promoting affordability. Simmons also emphasized the value of collaboration between institutions in her discussion of the Inclusive Excellence initiative. Although colleges and universities apply individually, the initiative then places the successful institutions into clusters to learn from one another and work together to encourage participation by underrepresented student populations in STEM.

College and university presidents appreciated hearing about funding priorities directly from foundation leaders. As reflected in the conference evaluations, presidents especially welcomed presentations from the Mellon and Teagle foundations as both have recently hired new presidents and have proposed fresh directions for their philanthropy. Presidents also praised the variety of foundations represented and the opportunities to interact with foundation officials between sessions and during the roundtable discussions.