Jeff Zehnder/shutterstock

Jeff Zehnder/shutterstock

Colorado State University (CSU) Chancellor Emeritus Joe Blake recently made a $5 million gift for the school’s College of Liberal Arts, highlighting a reliable segment of higher ed donors that continues to support the liberal arts in an era of big-ticket commitments earmarked for STEM, data sciences and artificial intelligence.

“I’m a liberal arts guy, and went to Dartmouth College,” Blake said. “Very seldom do you remember what the president said when you matriculated, but I recall Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey said that the liberal arts was really the ‘liberating arts,’ and I’ve stayed with that. I really believe in my postgraduate days that that’s been true; that the liberal arts is liberating, and it has no boundaries. It makes life so much more interesting, and your perspectives are broader and more diverse, as well.”

While Blake did not earn his degrees at CSU, Kim Tobin, vice president of university advancement, told me he became a self-proclaimed “CSU zealot” over the years as a volunteer, leader, and now donor to CSU. Most notably, in 2018, Blake founded the Blake Leadership Scholars Program in the College of Liberal Arts. CSU administrators are considering using Blake’s new gift to fortify the program and pay for building renovations at the college. The commitment is part of CSU’s $1 billion State Your Purpose campaign, and represents the largest gift in the college’s history.

“Joe’s passion for Colorado State is just remarkable,” said CSU President Joyce McConnell. “His belief in the transformative power of education becomes apparent to anyone within moments of meeting him. We are a better institution because of Joe and his vision for CSU.”

“Enhance Their Prestige”

We can attribute liberal arts’ fundraising resilience to donors’ recognition that the field provided them with, to quote Tobin, “a well-rounded perspective towards solving really tough problems.” In addition, ‘soft skills,’ such as writing and speaking, are increasingly being seen as ‘power skills’ because they are crucial for people to develop if they wish to impact their communities or take on leadership roles,” Tobin said.

Speaking to CSU’s College of Liberal Arts magazine, Blake said he hopes Blake Leadership Scholars will go on to use their degrees in political, civic, or business fields. “[In these arenas] you’ve got to have some thoughtful people who are critical thinkers. And I think the liberal arts is the fount of all that. [We are] creating phenomenal citizens for a world that’s in desperate need of phenomenal citizens,” he said.

(As it turns out, the world may have a few more phenomenal citizens moving forward. A month or so after CSU announced Blake’s gift, George Soros committed $1 billion the Open Society University Network to support the liberal arts on a global scale.)

Born in Denver, Blake went on to the University of Colorado Law School after graduating from Dartmouth. He was the president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, worked for the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, and was a special agent of the FBI. Blake has served on a wide variety of boards and commissions, including the Denver Foundation, Denver Scholarship Foundation, and the Denver Police Foundation. He currently chairs Colorado Wants You, a statewide 501(c)(3) organization created by business and civic leaders to support the military’s operational and combat units in Colorado.

Blake was appointed to CSU’s Board of Governors in 2006 and named the system’s first sole chancellor in 2009. He served until 2011 when he retired.

Commenting on his gift, Blake said, “my thought was that we needed to highlight the incredible faculty and excellence we have in the College of Liberal Arts. I have nothing but the highest regard for the faculty at CSU. They’re just remarkable. And how do you enhance their prestige and their value better than bringing the best young minds for them to light up.”

Ahead of Schedule

At a time in which public schools are turning to private funding as state legislatures step back, donors are making big gifts to the liberal arts as part of a university’s larger fundraising campaign.

“Philanthropic support for the university has surpassed state support for the past seven years,” Tobin told me. “Faculty research is expanding and producing new knowledge, even as state funding has declined. Seventy-two percent of our nearly 34,000 students depend on scholarships and financial aid. More and more, our public research institution and its students rely on private giving to excel.”

CSU launched its $1 billion State Your Purpose: The Campaign for Colorado State University in 2012. In October of 2018, it reached its goal 16 months early after it received two huge gifts. The first was an $8 million planned gift from an anonymous former student-athlete for scholarships and endowing the head coaching position in the women’s swimming program. The second was a $10 million planned gift for the College of Agricultural Sciences. CSU will wrap up the campaign at the end of the 2020 fiscal year.

“We established an ambitious and unprecedented goal for our university community and invited our alumni and donors to participate in meeting that challenge by giving in ways that are most meaningful to them,” Tobin told me. “Our focus has been to share the story of how Colorado State University is working to solve the challenges of our generation and the next–from eradicating infectious disease to tackling the effects of climate change to elevating public discourse by training students in critical thinking.”

CSU’s success comes as other public universities, including the University of Michigan, the University of Alabama, the University of Arizona, the University of Houston, and the University of Florida have either blown past fundraising goals or announced highly ambitious campaigns.

“Hear Their Stories”

Of the $1.23 billion CSU has raised, $231 million has been earmarked for new and renovated campus facilities, $192 million for scholarships, and $74.5 for faculty support.

Tobin cited two key takeaways from the campaign thus far. The first was donors’ support for scholarships. “It is a tangible way for donors to ‘give back’ or ‘pay forward’ their gratitude and experience,” she said. “Scholarship donors can honor a faculty or family member by carrying on a legacy through a scholarship, assist in developing programs and degrees by giving students the support to participate, help to recruit and retain students, and ultimately make it possible for students to graduate.”

In addition, Tobin noted that CSU’s largest and most transformational gifts in the campaign have been multidisciplinary. “Not only does this include different disciplines but also a variety of types of programs (scholarships, buildings, etc). Donors have responded positively to the opportunity to create meaningful investments across the university.”

“Our responsibility as fundraisers is not only to understand university priorities,” Tobin said, “but also to get to know our donors, hear their stories and help them give in a way that is most meaningful to them. Establishing trust is essential to the process, and demonstrating the impact donors make through their gifts is vital to keeping that trust.”

Tobin encouraged her fellow fundraisers to dream big. “We were told that raising $200 million was our campaign ceiling. Here we are a decade and a half later, and we have surpassed $1.2 billion.”

Share with cohorts