It may seem counterintuitive, but in the wake of high-profile scandals at universities such as Michigan State, Baylor and Penn State, philanthropic donations often increase. A new Chronicle of Philanthropy article sheds light on this mystifying phenomenon:
While headline-grabbing scandals involving rogue administrators and structural failures often generate steep legal fees, criminal charges, and public outrage, high-profile universities have seen donations — and sometimes enrollment — rise in the aftermath….
The Baylors, Michigan States, and Penn States of the world, with strong brand recognition and long institutional history, can survive high-profile scandals. They’re also multifaceted entities, “complex places where people attach their loyalties or interest to a particular area,” said David Weerts, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The entomology alumni care more about insects than athletics, he said, and donations will reflect that.
Still, there’s a good bit of damage control and reputational repair, reflected in this quote from Penn State’s vice president for development and alumni relations, Rodney Kirsch:
“In the year this happened, we made more face-to-face visits than we’ve ever made in the history of the university,” Kirsch said. “We were not asking people for major gifts; we were doing damage control. We were trying to rebuild the brand.”
The development office was then in the midst of a $2-billion capital campaign, and Kirsch thinks the scandal had an impact. While Penn State was able to raise $2.1 billion for the campaign, Kirsch estimates that the institution could have gotten to $2.5 billion had the scandal not happened. While Penn State’s public image was being scarred, and it faced tens of millions in legal fees, Kirsch and his team sought to preserve donors’ relationships with the institution.
So while some alumni might withhold donations in the face of scandals, most rally around their alma mater with a demonstration of solidarity and, it seems, unwavering support.
Those kinds of donations make psychological sense, said Dennis Kramer. An assistant professor of education at the University of Florida, Kramer studies athletics and its conduits for influencing university decisions. He said high-profile athletics scandals could, in a convoluted way, encourage alumni to show financial support.
“It’s the idea that when there’s a scandal, or when there’s something that causes us to question the viability of something we hold dear, we may respond with supporting that entity more,” Kramer said.
Has anything like this happened on your campus or to your alma mater? How would you respond if such a circumstance arose? Would you continue to give?