Every once in a while I receive questions about gifts the university has received, about the intentions and motivations of our donors, their ideology, their backgrounds, and even their citizenship.
Our donors, just like our faculty, students and staff, come from all over the world; they have different backgrounds and experiences, different faiths and ideologies, different personal stories and views of the world. Some care about access and fund scholarships for students of certain characteristics that matter to them: low-income, high-potential, certain geographic origin, etc. Others focus on research and dedicate their contributions to supporting the work of our faculty, whether in game design, biomedical research, Islamic studies, climate change, values-based leadership, law, civil engineering or economics. Others support our athletics program, or they help us build new facilities. Some make contributions to be used at the discretion of a dean or even the president (which is much appreciated!).
The notion of diversity and inclusion that is so central to our mission applies to our donors, too.
Philanthropy has become an important resource for our university and is bound to become even more so in the future. Quite bluntly, as public funding of universities continues to decline, we would not be able to deliver on our mission of excellence and access without the support of individuals and organizations who believe in us and bet on us. Many of our students would not be studying at Mason, or perhaps anywhere else. Many of our best faculty would not be working at Mason or would see their productivity diminished. And many of our modern facilities would only exist in the imagination of our deans.
Since I arrived at Mason, fundraising has occupied a big part of my time and the time of many of my colleagues. Fortunately, our new vision and plans for the future have so far resonated with our community. Our donors have responded with two years of record donations. Our endowment has grown by almost 30 percent. I can only hope that we can sustain these trends in the future!
Can the growing importance of private philanthropy compromise our academic independence? The answer is that our donors, no matter how generous, are not allowed to choose the student who receives the scholarship, the professor who is hired, or the scholarship a faculty member produces. They know that these rules are an essential part of our academic integrity. If these rules are not acceptable, we simply don’t accept the gift. Academic freedom is never for sale. Period.
We do not ask donors to disclose their ideology nor do we judge their personal motivations. We thank them and let them know that they are helping to expand and preserve the academic freedom of our vibrant university.
We would not jeopardize the integrity of our academic programs or forfeit our ability to make our own decisions. That would only hinder our mission, not enhance it. The one promise we make to all donors is to be careful stewards of their gifts and spend their money wisely and according to our agreement.
Support for George Mason is an investment in academic freedom. And that is a gift not only to this university, but to us all.