2020 Foundation Conversation: Foundation Officers Ask College Presidents What Kind of World They Want to Make

CIC’s biennial Conversation between Foundation Officers and College and University Presidents celebrated its 30th convening on October 19, 2020. The gathering explored “Philanthropy and Higher Education: Trends and Opportunities in a Time of Crisis” and featured presentations from leaders of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Henry Luce Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Spencer Foundation, St. David’s Foundation, and St. Louis Community Foundation. Held virtually, the event attracted 103 presidents and 17 foundation staff members as participants.

In her keynote address, Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, praised the enduring value of private colleges and universities, emphasizing the transformative power of a liberal arts education and the capacity of the humanities and the arts to help students weather unexpected challenges and effect lasting change. Alexander described the influence of these colleges as “rippling out across generations,” giving the example of her own family’s legacy: Her great-grandfather, Warren Logan, born into slavery, served as treasurer of Tuskegee University (AL) and her great-grandmother, Ida Logan, served as librarian. Alexander showcased the work of colleges and universities in their communities through CIC’s Humanities Research for the Public Good initiative, highlighting how students at Lewis & Clark College (OR) and Connecticut College worked with faculty members, collections experts, and community members to elevate the histories of local communities that might not otherwise be preserved. Alexander also pointed to the work of CIC college graduates who transform their communities through the arts, such as Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna, an MFA graduate of Mills College (CA), who traveled along the Columbia River for the “One River, Many Voices” project to unite Washingtonians through poetry. As she described the Mellon Foundation’s commitment to supporting the arts and humanities, Alexander discussed the foundation’s goal to understand and help rectify inequities in society.

Many other presenters emphasized diversity, equity, inclusion, and especially the quest for racial justice as key elements of their grantmaking strategies. Mariko Silver, president of the Henry Luce Foundation, explained the foundation’s support of reciprocal and cyclical projects at colleges and universities, which encouraged equal partnerships with communities outside the institution and a sharing of scholarly authority. Silver also shared the Luce Foundation’s strong interest in projects that encourage and engage with systems change, whether in a department or across a discipline, in one university or across several. She challenged the audience to use their power and influence to ask what kind of world we want to make, as the current moment shows us that “no one thinks we’re doing just fine as we are. Everyone can see that things are broken.”

This commitment to change also applied to the foundations themselves, as several of the presenters shared the ways in which their organizations examine and change their own practices to effect transformation. Through the writer and activist June Jordan’s poem “Focus in Real Time,” Alexander raised important questions about representation and power in grantmaking, reflecting on who is in the room when decisions are made. Similarly, Na'ilah Suad Nasir, president of the Spencer Foundation, shared new equity goals for the foundation, such as providing feedback on all viable proposals instead of a select few, making review panels more diverse, and selecting grantees who reflect geographic and institutional diversity. To encourage applications from scholars at teaching-heavy institutions, the Spencer Foundation now provides course buy-outs in addition to traditional research funding.

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Na’ilah Suad Nasir, president of the Spencer Foundation, discussing “Opportunities for Private Colleges and Universities.”

In a session on trends in philanthropy for independent higher education, two presenters discussed what’s next for CIC member institutions in the foundation landscape. Michael Murray, president of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, noted several areas in which foundations and private colleges and universities could collaborate in the future, including digital learning, student mental health support, and racial justice initiatives. He noted that many foundations are looking for ways to support remote learning brought on by the pandemic, drawing on a recent faculty survey from Every Learner Everywhere and Tyton Partners on instructors’ experiences planning for a remote semester in fall 2020. The pandemic also has exacerbated the existing mental health crisis on college campuses, and Murray anticipates that foundations will step in to address this need. Like other presenters, Murray highlighted the demand for campus programs that will increase racial equity, but he encouraged presidents interested in pursuing these initiatives to draw on evidence-based interventions, as foundations have become skeptical of unproven diversity training measures that often prove ineffective.

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Michael Murray, president of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, discussing “Trends in Philanthropy for Independent Higher Education.”

The financial stability of smaller private colleges also is a big issue for funders, and presenters provided strategies to address this issue head on. Murray advised presidents to be aware of their institutions’ financial health scores when applying for grants, as many foundations are turning to these scores from sources such as the Hechinger Report, Forbes, and Edmit to make decisions on grant awards. Amy Holmes, director of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, focused on how colleges and universities could align financial stability with access and success for today’s students, drawing on an upcoming report on this topic with the TIAA Institute. She suggested that campus leaders focus on the return on investment to the institution not only of recruiting new students, but also of retaining current students. Holmes also exhorted presidents to encourage their chief academic and chief financial officers to work together to determine how major financial decisions on campus affect key student populations, and to determine such metrics as how much money is spent per completed degree and on what elements.

In addition to sharing funding opportunities at major national foundations, the Foundation Conversation included advice on how to pursue a relatively untapped source of funding for colleges and universities: community and regional foundations. Amelia Bond, president and CEO of the St. Louis Community Foundation, gave presidents insight into her organization, which is supported primarily by living, active donors through donor-advised funds and is committed to transforming St. Louis and increasing equity for its residents. She encouraged presidents to build relationships with staff members at their own regional foundations, focusing on the role their institutions could play in their region. Edward Burger, president and CEO of St. David’s Foundation (and president emeritus and professor emeritus of mathematics at Southwestern University in Texas), similarly encouraged participants to seek out relationships with community partners that might not seem like an obvious fit at first glance. St. David’s Foundation, for example, focuses on health and wellness but works extensively with local colleges and universities on health education programs.

The 2020 Foundation Conversation showed that, despite the current upheaval on campus and in society, funders are still eager to collaborate with CIC member institutions to address major issues on campus and in their local communities. Although all the presenters acknowledged current challenges—such as the specter of financial instability that looms over many colleges and universities, the pervasive presence of racial injustice in America, and of course the continued devastation wrought by COVID-19—they also praised the resilience of CIC member institutions and the vital role these colleges and universities play for their students, their regions, and the nation. Mariko Silver, herself a former president of Bennington College (VT), summed this up best when she said that colleges and universities can provide an “essential mooring for society,” especially during this time of crisis.

Foundations Partner to Strengthen Transfer Pathways to the Liberal Arts

During CIC’s 2020 Conversation between Foundation Officers and College and University Presidents, Michael Murray, president of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations (AVDF), announced that the Teagle Foundation and AVDF are partnering to sponsor Transfer Pathways to the Liberal Arts. This new grant initiative is designed to support statewide, regional, or consortial partnerships between public two-year and private four-year colleges to facilitate transfer and bachelor’s degree completion in the liberal arts. The grant program aims to bring the lifelong benefits of a liberal arts education to students who historically have been excluded from higher education—including low-income, first-generation, and immigrant students and students of color—who now constitute the “new majority” of undergraduates and often depend on community college as their gateway to higher education.

The initiative will provide institutions with planning grants of $25,000 over six to 12 months and implementation grants ranging from $250,000 to $350,000 over 24 to 36 months to improve opportunities for students to transfer from two-year public institutions to four-year private liberal arts colleges. The program will focus on building comprehensive curricular frameworks between community colleges and independent colleges to ensure transferability and applicability of credits and timely completion of the baccalaureate in the liberal arts.

CIC helped with the development of this transfer pathways initiative. Previously, CIC received funding from the Teagle Foundation for an implementation grant in North Carolina, in collaboration with North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, as well as a planning grant in Ohio, in collaboration with the Ohio Foundation for Independent Colleges. Both of CIC’s Independent Pathways: Community College Transfer in the Liberal Arts initiatives will continue, and CIC will explore possibilities for expanding its work to other states.

Meanwhile, CIC encourages member institutions to learn more about the new Teagle Foundation–AVDF grant initiative. For more information on the Transfer Pathways to the Liberal Arts initiative, see the request for proposals and research report on overcoming pitfalls and leveraging opportunities for transfer pathways from community colleges to independent colleges.



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