UVA Nursing’s $5 million gift and the future of higher-ed funding

Assistant professor Cathy Campbell lectures to students in UVA’s Clinical Nurse Leaders program, which will double in size thanks to a $5 million gift from a single donor. Photo: John Robinson. Assistant professor Cathy Campbell lectures to students in UVA’s Clinical Nurse Leaders program, which will double in size thanks to a $5 million gift from a single donor. Photo: John Robinson.

UVA School of Nursing Dean Dorrie Fontaine had been on the job six weeks when she was told she was losing $1 million from her budget.

It was 2008. State funding had been declining for years, and the financial crisis was delivering heavy blows to UVA’s endowment. The school’s only option was to take an ax to spending.

“That was sort of a bellwether,” Fontaine said. State support, already in a steady decline, has been dropping since.

Last week, in her offices on the third floor of the Claude Moore Nursing Education building, she held up a letter that brought things full circle. It was a handwritten note scrawled by UVA’s newest big donor, Bill Conway, and she read it aloud: “Enclosed, please find a check for $1 million, representing the first installment of our commitment to UVA nursing.”

Private funds—gifts and disbursements from its once again robust endowment—jumped from 15 percent of UVA’s revenues to nearly 20 percent in the last 10 years, and now make up a bigger proportion of its budget than do taxpayer dollars. The University’s recent $3 billion capital campaign is coming to a close, but the fundraising team is not letting up. Last week, administrators outlined an aggressive plan to make donations an even bigger piece of its revenue pie, and in many ways, the Conway gift is a prime example of what they’re hunting: a seven-figure supporter from outside the fold who is eyeing a long-lasting relationship with the school.

After Washington financier Bill Conway announced in 2011 that he planned to give away at least $1 billion of his wealth before he died, it was the Carlyle Group co-founder’s wife, Joanne, who suggested much of the initial $55 million in gifts go to create scholarships for some of the region’s best nursing programs.

UVA can thank a Carlyle VP named Zach Crowe for the fact that it made the list. Conway is not a University alum, but Crowe is. He graduated in 2005, and married into the Birdsong family, whose millions have long supported the medical and nursing schools.

“Zach said, ‘Have you considered Virginia?’” said Fontaine. Then came the calls and meetings—14 months of them. Conway was drawn to one program in particular.

UVA’s Clinical Nurse Leaders program is designed to turn bright adults coming to the profession from other careers into advanced generalist nurses—big-picture practitioners who are focused on improving patient outcomes, and, said Fontaine, are equipped to combat the failures of a broken health care industry.

Created in 2007, it’s a relatively new professional designation within nursing, but one that’s generating a lot of demand. It’s also a rigorous, 24-month, full-time commitment. To Conway, it sounded like an opportunity.

“He’s interested in capacity,” Fontaine said. “How can we double something?” The answer was scholarships—within five years, 48 of them—which would open up the CNL program to lower-income students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford dropping jobs to get a master’s degree.

The gift will also fund four to six new faculty positions. That’s a big deal at a time when UVA is anxiously seeking ways to bring in new professors and hang on to the ones it has, and nobody knows that better than Fontaine, who is chair of the University’s Committee on Faculty Retention, Recruitment, and Development. Securing the gift felt “like dominoes falling into place,” she said.

But that belies the work it took to get there. Fontaine estimates she spends 40 percent of her time fundraising for her school—necessary to chase that kind of support in order to grow programs in tough economic times.

“I think this might be the way of the future,” she said.

She’s not alone.

While the headlines coming out of last week’s Board of Visitors meeting in Richmond were focused on proposed tuition hikes—a 3.9 percent increase for in-state students and what amounts to a $1,500 jump in fees for many sparked uneasy debate—the administrators’ draft financial plan also laid out ambitious new fundraising goals that make private money more important than ever to the University’s bottom line.

Giving and disbursements from UVA’s powerful endowment now account for almost twice as much of its budget as state appropriations do, and the University is aiming ever higher. The University has plans to launch a $5 billion bicentennial campaign in 2017, with a goal to double its philanthropic cash flow growth rate from 2 to 4 percent.

Getting there will require a “philosophical shift” in how UVA solicits gifts, according to the financial report: a bigger and broader pool of donors, more staff to woo them, and a more centralized approach that will coordinate fundraising efforts among the University’s various schools and foundations to support core operational needs.

Its peers are following the same trend. According to the Delta Cost Project, which examines trends in higher education funding, public research universities saw per-pupil revenues from gifts and endowments make massive rebounds in 2010 after faltering in 2008. Data gathered by the Council for Aid to Education showed contributions for colleges’ current operations went up by 6.2 percent in 2012.

Conway is just the kind of big fish UVA wants to land. Not only does he represent new territory as a non-alum willing to make a significant contribution despite no direct link to the University, his message to the recipients of his largesse, including UVA, has been that there’s more where this came from.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if over the next five or 10 years, the amount that went into these similar kinds of buckets was five to 10 times more,” he told the Washington Post last year.

But the new era of bigger-than-ever giving raises an equally big question for public research institutions like UVA. Does its mission shift when private donations make up nearly a fifth of revenues and state support is whittled down to a tenth?

As Fontaine and other members of committees working on the University’s strategic plan have grappled with the future of the school, “we’ve had to be very thoughtful about what it means to be a public institution,” she said. “What do we owe the citizens of the state and the country?”

There’s a feeling that with less dependence on taxpayer dollars comes more freedom. “We would prefer to state our vision and mission and act on it, and constantly evaluate it,” she said.

The shift in the bottom line is cause for concern among some higher ed experts. The Education Trust, a nonprofit focused on closing opportunity and achievement gaps, warned in a 2010 report that public flagship schools’ efforts to model their financial plans on their private peers was eroding universities’ public missions.

But for the nursing school, the benefits of the latest big contribution to UVA look clear: more students in an increasingly important program. There’s also hope that it’s a better kind of bellwether for better times to come, when like-minded partners are willing to throw even more financial weight behind initiatives they care about.

“I’m thinking in my mind now, ‘What is that next big gift?’” Fontaine said. “What is a $10 or $20 million proposal? What would that look like?”