Saturday, October 5, 2013

On Institutional Advancement

In this latest ground-breaking essay--part of the series exploring innovative change in contemporary pedagogy--I turn from purely academic matters to the important issue of raising funds. Readers are encouraged to distribute this seminal brainstorm widely.

                            ON INSTITUTIONAL ADVANCEMENT

Let us imagine that you find a family living in a dilapidated old house. The roof leaks; the windows are cracked; the carpets are threadbare; the furnace is erratic, often providing much heat in warm weather and little heat when it is cold. The stone walls are crumbling.

Let us also imagine that you—Mr. Hastings van Rensselaer Plutocrat—are wealthy and altruistic. You wish to assist this family. You leave your mansion in Palm Desert, California, and go to them. You smilingly announce that you are going to help them. You will construct in their yard a marble fountain that will send a beautiful spray of water fifty feet into the air; further, you will hang upon their living room wall—over the cracks—a genuine Gobelin tapestry depicting colorful scenes of medieval pageantry.

In proper recognition of your generosity, a fine bronze plaque will be affixed to the fountain designating it the Plutocrat Water Display and the tapestry will appropriately bear a small label: “Gift of H. van R. Plutocrat, 2013.” Your benevolence will be fittingly acknowledged at a public ceremony where you will be hailed as a modern Maecenas, a philanthropist extraordinaire. 

How happy this family will surely be! Even as they sit in their cold, drafty living room watching the rain drip into the buckets placed under the holes in the roof, they will hardly be able to stifle their cries of joy as they admire the intricate weaving of the tapestry and marvel at the loveliness of the fountain.

If this seems like an absurd flight of fancy, I have to suggest that, unfortunately, it is not. It is analogous to what can happen when a combination of generosity, self-esteem, and misplaced priorities, facilitated by faulty fund-raising policies, are brought to bear on an impoverished institution—such as, to choose a random example, a tuition-driven boarding school.

Would it not make more sense, if, before adorning a shack with golden gables, one first repaired the walls? If the roof leaks, should the construction of a magnificent garage be the first priority? When the heating system is antique and undependable, one might replace it before installing a jacuzzi, might one not? Should one not water the lily before gilding it?

Surely it does not strain credulity to assert that institutional advancement implies that the institution must have a sound infrastructure before more buildings are built and comparative frills added. That is common sense. Why then is it not done?

One reason may be that some potential philanthropists feel that to endow a grand building, to construct a statue, to equip rooms with huge tables that the users of those rooms neither want nor need, is preferable to repairing a heating system or tuck-pointing a crumbling wall, because building, constructing, and equipping offer more opportunities for recognition than repairing and replacing. Perhaps such people feel that little prestige attaches to renovating bathrooms or laying carpets, to fixing roofs or caulking windows. After all, the pharaohs are remembered for pyramids, not for sewers.

I suggest that it is the function of Development Departments not to take the easy way out by abetting such erroneous notions and soliciting money for secondary things, but to grasp the nettle and tell potential donors what is really needed. If Lorenzo the Magnificent, class of ’53, announces he will finance an air-conditioned, twenty-lane bowling alley, it is the job of the Institutional Advancement experts to tell him (politely but firmly) that the institution does not need such a thing, but does need—to invent an exaggerated, unlikely example—to prevent a dormitory that has visible cracks in its outer walls and whose windows are out of plumb from continuing its slow but steady descent into a ravine, so would he kindly write a check for these much-needed repairs to an already-existing structure even though it is not named after him?     

So, wealthy, public-spirited alumni: when your alma mater needs shoes and a dress, do not give her a feather boa. When she huddles in the cold, do not give her a painting of a fireplace. When her house is falling down, do not offer to build her a tanning salon next door.

And advancement officials: take the bull by the horns and insist that you have a strong, well-built cart before you get a horse, or a white elephant, to pull it. Repair the infrastructure before adding to the superstructure. 

For if this is not done, the eventual fate of institutions which do not do it might well be that so famously depicted by Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half-sunk, a shattered visage lies….

And on the pedestal these words appear --
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Maybe Ozymandias built an Arts Center when he really should have repaired his palace.

For all those awaiting news of The Free Lands, I want to tell both of you that the book is completed and that I am awaiting the cover. If the artist finishes it on time, I am hopeful that Volume IV of Mercenaries will appear in November.