Americans have never been so disappointed by higher education. In a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Bipartisan Policy Center, only 60% of Americans said that they believed a college degree was worth the time and cost. The current dissatisfaction with higher education is well warranted. Rising tuition rates, disjointed curriculum, and suppression of free speech make many donors wary of giving to colleges and universities.

But there is also reason for hope. In 2015, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) began the Oases of Excellence initiative to identify academic programs that educate students for informed citizenship in a free society; introduce students to the foundational arts and sciences; and encourage free inquiry into a range of intellectual viewpoints. To qualify as an Oasis of Excellence, these programs must be led by faculty, focused on students, and funded in part by donors. By creating or supporting an Oasis of Excellence, philanthropists who are concerned about the lack of intellectual diversity on college campuses can help give students access to an enriching education.

There are now over 70 members of ACTA’s Oases of Excellence network at public universities, private liberal arts colleges, and Ivy League Schools. They offer a diverse range of activities, from lecture series and Great Books courses to study abroad opportunities. Baylor in Washington, the Oasis of Excellence at my alma mater, Baylor University, supports student internships in Washington, D.C. as well as public lectures on the intersection of faith and policy issues. Each program grew from the ingenuity of a faculty member and is made possible by the generosity of donors. Take, for example, the following centers:

  • The Tocqueville Program at Furman University began from a modest endowment for a lecture series. It now offers a competitive fellowship program, reading groups, Great Books coursework, and a residential learning program for first-year students, all aimed at helping students explore the issues at the heart of political life.
  • The Engineering Leadership Program at the University of Colorado–Boulder uses a liberal arts pedagogy to teach leadership in the applied sciences. Students learn about the implications of technology in a philosophical and cultural context.
  • The Arete Initiative at Duke University helps students address the foundational questions of humanity and citizenship through lectures, conferences, courses, and research. In the Arete Initiative’s fellowship program, students share meals and engage with guest speakers and faculty.

Donors to these programs contribute to a renewal of the liberal arts and free inquiry for the entire campus community. As more students participate in Oases of Excellence, and more funds come to the university through these programs, university leadership will see the demand for greater academic rigor and the free exchange of ideas and will be motivated to promote these values across the institution.

Oases of Excellence provide an opportunity for philanthropists to maximize the impact of their giving. While major gifts are always welcome, even smaller gifts can be transformative. Academic programs are usually heavily reliant on the university’s budget, and many are run as a passion project of faculty members who must also continue to teach their own classes and conduct research. Paying for administrative support, such as the logistical side of event planning or maintaining a website, frees up professors to focus on the educational side of programming. Modest annual gifts can bring exciting speakers to campus, fund research, and provide students with course material.

Contributing to an Oasis of Excellence improves students’ educational experience, and donors who give to a local university can also reap the benefits. They can attend public lectures with leading intellectuals hosted by the program and personally meet the students and faculty whom their gift supports. Indeed, developing a trusting relationship with faculty directors is the safest bet for philanthropists who want to ensure that their intent will be honored.

Although some donors may be tempted to walk away from our nation’s colleges and universities, Oases of Excellence provide a prudent yet powerful way to support the best higher education has to offer. These academic programs are a testament to the influence of targeted philanthropy. When donors and dedicated faculty share a vision, they can create programs that change students’ lives and shape the next generation for meaningful lives and productive citizenship.

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