By MICHAEL VIRTANEN, Associated Press
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia University's major fundraising campaign, originally targeting $750 million, has topped $1.125 billion with an ongoing push in its final six months.
With state support declining, every public university in the country is having major financial challenges, WVU President Gordon Gee said.
The university's tuition for 2017-2018 is up 5 percent from last year, though it remains relatively low at about $4,500 per semester for in-state undergraduates, and more than double that for out-of-staters among the more than 30,000 students.
Gee doubles as the university's chief fundraiser, and fit the part as he described the campaign, called "State of Minds," during an interview in his office overlooking the main campus, where the bespectacled educator wore brand-new blue and gold sneakers with the WVU logo along with his summer weight suit and signature bow tie.
"You have to talk about what you're accomplishing, and more importantly, have people believe that this is the place that's willing to invest in itself in terms of change and opportunity," said Gee. "And then, have them understand that their money and their support is the difference between good and great."
The campaign began in 2012, aiming to raise $750 million by December 2015. That was surpassed in 2014, prompting the foundation and Gee to raise the goal to $1 billion and extend the deadline through this year. The WVU Foundation reported receiving nearly $140 million in new gifts and pledges in the fiscal year that ended June 30, its second-highest total.
Foundation officials say more than 60 percent of the money raised directly supports students, mostly through scholarships.
About two-thirds has come from more than 36,000 alumni; the rest from other individuals, foundations and businesses. Gee said the network of contacts he built over decades running universities also has helped him make new friends for WVU.
Because of this campaign, the university has been able to establish 774 scholarships, 55 faculty chairs and professorships, and 221 new funds to assist research, as well as fund competitive salaries to keep top people, Gee said.
A Utah native and former law professor known for his sometimes impolitic candor, the 73-year-old Gee signed a five-year contract with WVU last year. He also was WVU's president from 1981 to 1985. In between, he led Ohio State University, the Ivy League's Brown University, the University of Colorado and Vanderbilt University.
"The pathway to success is an educated citizenry," he said as he acknowledged West Virginia's economic struggles in a March address.
Unfortunately, he said the latest Pew research shows declining support for higher education, from about 85 percent four decades ago to 55 percent of Americans who now think higher education is important. Gee says it doesn't help when schools try to keep out controversial ideas and their advocates.
"The coin of our realm is ideas, and the freedom to be able to talk about those ideas," he said. Things such as "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces" that put limits on speech, he said, "are really antithetical to the intellectual environment. And so we have been very clear that if a student group or anybody else invites a controversial speaker on the campus, that we will ensure that that speaker will be able to come on."
In December, the university's Republican student group invited Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who mocked and criticized America's political left and singled out a WVU sociology professor for insults. Some other universities have blocked Yiannopoulos.
In 2014, the conservative Charles Koch Foundation and a WVU business school alumnus gave the university $5 million to establish the Center for Free Enterprise, led by two economics professors to examine the role of free societies in creating prosperity.
But that doesn't mean the university is imposing a specific set of beliefs; if someone wanted to fund a center to examine the role of unfettered capitalism in creating harm, that also would be fine, Gee said.
"We accept money from a variety of sources as long as it's money that's not directed, as I say, toward a political catechism," he said.