COVID-19 has challenged the ability of colleges and universities to conduct in-person classes, undertake research and travel to and meet with alumni and supporters. As a result, our natural instincts as college leaders are to go into hibernation until the pandemic passes. But for a variety of reasons, now is the time for us to lean into the work that we do.
Now is the time when what we do matters even more. Think about all the vexing social challenges that have been brought to the fore over the past year, including health care, racial justice and economic opportunity. Higher education institutions are especially well positioned to address these important challenges.
Now is the time to engage in research and secure grants from government and other sources. While COVID has extracted a significant toll on society, our efforts to deal with it through vaccines and therapeutics validate the importance of the scientific inquiry central to our mission. Much as the Great Influenza of 1918 spurred the development of research-based medical centers that advanced the human condition, so too will COVID instigate further improvements in our health-care system.
Witness the novel mRNA technology at the core of the Moderna and Pfizer anti-COVID vaccines and its promise, through harnessing our own bodies’ immune systems, to deal with other diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis. Moreover, certain recently developed therapeutics appear to be effective in promoting recovery in the lion’s share of COVID patients to whom they have been administered.
Now is the time to pursue philanthropic support. As Neil Irwin detailed in The New York Times, annual disposable personal income actually increased by more than $1 trillion since COVID (more than 5 percent of annual GDP). The increase in income during the pandemic has manifested itself in a significant rise in the savings rate (from 7 percent to a record 33.7 percent, as noted by Irwin), a sharp decrease in the purchase of services and a rise in the value of assets such as stocks and residential real estate.
The rise in asset values enhances opportunities for philanthropic investment in higher education. Our university’s target is to secure at least $15 million in new gifts or commitments per academic year. So far, we have already received nearly $22 million in new gifts and commitments for 2020-21.
Now is the time to further involve our advisory boards and supporters in our programs and activities. We can do that through technologies such as Zoom and by providing them the opportunity to make a positive difference during this period. At Alfred University, we have been averaging almost 95 percent attendance at our Board of Trustees meetings since the advent of COVID (albeit by Zoom), versus an average of 75 percent pre-COVID.
The counsel that our trustees have provided has been vital -- including how to evaluate longer-term investments in infrastructure to thinking about a potential online learning pivot. Through using our trustees as a sounding board, we have realized that we should continue teaching in person as much as possible (more than half of our classes are in person and another 25 percent hybrid) given that we have yet to document a single case of in-classroom COVID transmission. Classroom settings are especially safe places provided there is effective ventilation and participants are masked and socially distanced. The online alternative, where students are less likely to be practicing protocols, is arguably less safe and certainly pedagogically poorer.
Now is the time to build for the future. Our trustees have also provided significant financial support to underwrite strategic improvements at our university. Such trustee support includes long-term investments in our campus facilities. As long as construction projects are philanthropically funded and do not impact our operating budget, such investments are justified.
At our university, for example, we have been pleasantly surprised by the number of bidders and the competitiveness of the bids for the various facilities projects that we have undertaken over the past year. They include renovating our largest residence hall, repaving and beautifying half of our campus streets, and beginning work on a distinctive Foundry project that will help build upon and better bridge our signature programs in the schools of engineering and art and design.
George Eastman, the founder of Kodak and one of the most significant all-time donors, in real terms, to colleges and universities, was asked why his giving focused on higher education even though he had never gone to college. Eastman responded that his investment was predicated on the belief that education is the solution to most every problem vexing our world. Pandemics are no exception.
In any given year, colleges and universities receive more than 60 percent of the largest philanthropic gifts in the United States. Such “smart-money” investments are guided by the belief that higher education holds the greatest promise to create societal improvement. Let us take confidence from that belief and in our own history of making the world a better place.
Now is our time.