The webinar, held Thursday, March 21, 2024, discussed the role of governments, families, and philanthropy in supporting universities and funding students’ education. 

Opening remarks from ALI co-founder Dr. Earl Lewis introduced the topic and the mission of the Academic Leadership Institute, which aims to increase the representation of rising leaders committed to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), including faculty of color, on track to becoming future presidents and provosts. Dr. Lewis looked forward to ALI’s fourth-annual Residential Program to be held this summer, convening established and rising academic leaders to address critical issues in higher education.

Questions from moderator Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, President Emerita of Spelman College, ranged topics including: issues of government funding, the role of philanthropy in supporting higher education, lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of anti-DEI legislation, and how to define the ‘student of today.’ All topics of discussion revolved around a central question: how do institutions assess the ability to meet evolving financial needs while tackling critical issues such as tuition increases, student debt, and the environmental impact of traditional learning practices, while sustaining a practical and equitable financial plan? 

Panelist Penelepe C. Hunt, Senior Consultant and Managing Principal at Marts&Lundy, whose philanthropic experience has helped raise countless dollars for higher education, reflected on the role of philanthropy and charitable giving to sustain universities. “Philanthropy is an answer,” says Hunt, “but I don’t think it’s the entire answer.” In the current landscape, charitable donations are often tied to very specific fundraising goals. Prior to the early 2000s, Hunt notes that “it was very common…to give unrestricted gifts to institutions,” but recently the trend has shifted to gifts being earmarked for very specific types of spending. “Large givers are very mission-connected and typically have a strategy…and while those might be in the purview of institutions of higher education, they’re somewhat restricted.” While the realm of philanthropy is “getting harder” for institutions as trust in universities has changed over time, Hunt urges leaders to “have a clear sense of what your values are, what your mission is…and then listen to what your potential donor cares about. When you really listen…you’re much more likely to find a connection that’s going to result in the gift.”

Panelist Ted Mitchell, President of the American Council on Education, expressed similar views on the current state of higher education, which he believes is “different” from previous eras. “We are in an environment in which there is skepticism about the value of higher education,” says Dr. Mitchell. “People are worried about whether they will literally get their money’s worth.” Mitchell notes that “we’ve forgotten that education is a public good. It’s become very, very, very transactional” as students have had to increasingly take on the burden of rising tuition costs. In response to this trend, so-called “nontraditional students” have become something of a norm in the higher education landscape. “People are voting with their feet for alternative modalities,” says Mitchell, citing that only one-third of students in higher education now are aged 18-24 on a residential campus. Policies need to be updated to reflect this change, Mitchell argues, urging policymakers and leaders “to direct attention to where the majority of the students are…and the outcomes of the majority of those students.” Addressing these issues will take structural and policy change, but in the meantime, institutions must adapt. “The most transformational thing we can do,” Mitchell says, “is the same thing we’ve been doing, but better … How do you change the narrative about higher education? You have a bunch of people who are really satisfied with what happened to them,” who will in turn support the institutions that gave them opportunities for success.


Hear more from our panelists and learn from this riveting webinar by watching the full recording, now available on the CSS YouTube channel: