Private Donation to Private University

German universities, almost all of which are state-run, are now taking little baby-steps to begin soliciting funds from corporations and individuals to supplement their strapped budgets.

These efforts are often poorly managed. One example: almost none of the universities realize that professional full-time fundraisers are needed to develop marketing campaigns and maintain contacts. Instead, universities often ask, or expect, professors to do this job. This is counter-productive, since professors are supposed to be there to teach and write, not glad-hand with wealthy patrons. Besides, professors are generally fairly odd, and most have no desire to spend a large amount of time at social functions talking with rich businesspeople. If they were good at that sort of thing, they probably wouldn’t have become professors.

Second, because the professors and (more occasionally) fund-raisers who arrange these donations have little experience negotiating such contracts, the paltry donations that do come in often have strings attached. For complex reasons, it’s very difficult to arrange "naming opportunities" in return for donations (i.e., give us $50,000 and we’ll name the physics building after you, but that’s all you’ll get), so the donors often request return favors for the money, such as privileged access to research results, or inside information about who the best students are. I’m not saying the universities agree to these conditions, since they are probably illegal under German law, but they are often pressured to do so. Further, most of the contributions that come in as a result of professor-gladhanding benefit that professor. She’ll get a 10,000 Euro contribution to establish an institute in her field of research that bears the main sponsor’s  name. This does little or nothing to help universities with their day-to-day budget and infrastructure problems.

One university, though, appears to have gotten more proactive about this. According to the New York Times Klaus Jacobs, a Bremen-born food-industry billionaire who lives in England, just donated $250 million to the International University Bremen, which from now on will be known as the Jacobs University Bremen.

The Times article provides some context: 

Now restored with the money from Mr. Jacobs, this fledgling institution is determined to chart a new course in a country that helped pioneer the modern research university in the 19th century but has lost its edge in recent decades.

Mr. Jacobs, a Swiss citizen who was born in this bustling northern German city, said he hoped his gesture would encourage more large-scale philanthropy in a land where it is largely unknown.

Private giving to German universities is limited by several factors, ranging from the lack of a philanthropic tradition to rules that limit the amount of tax-free donations. The biggest hurdle, however, is the state, which has historically been the main financier of higher education.

One result is that German universities lack the resources of their American rivals. The United States spends 2.6 percent of its gross domestic product on higher education; the Germans, only 1.1 percent.

The decision to rename the university for a businessman was not universally welcomed. A few students complained that it was not dignified. In Germany, extreme wealth is still viewed with suspicion rather than reverence. Others countered that the Jacobs name and money would help the university establish a distinct brand image, not to mention keep it afloat.

The notion of competition is also evolving in Germany. Since the early 1970’s, when admissions were thrown open by government decree, there has been a sort of artificial equality among German schools, which masked disparities in the quality of teachers and students.

The article concludes by asking Jacobs why he didn’t give his donation to the University of Hamburg: “They didn’t ask.”

One thought on “Private Donation to Private University

  1. When I got my LLM from the University of Frankfurt, I was amazed at the whole exercise. There was no integration of the German students with the foreign students. Presumably, this is one benefit of such programs for the local students – mingling with students from a foreign legal system. But what further amazed me was the total absence of any sort of glad handing and “development” activities that one faces in US universities. My impression was that they had the LLM program simply because US institutions have them, many German lawyers received LLMs from US universities und man tut so was.


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