Conflict in the Middle East has prompted a reckoning in higher education. When colleges were roiled by student demonstrations after Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 ambush of Israeli civilians and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza, most school administrations took the signs and shouting in stride.

The slogans might have been more inflammatory than usual (“There is only one solution / intifada revolution!”), but for administrations that had grown used to appeasing students by appointing a diversity dean or two and organizing a listening committee, the situation didn’t seem all that serious. It was the revolt of a more quiescent class — major university donors — that forced administrators to respond. The ensuing fight between donors and schools has the potential to reset their relationship for the better. 

The donor’s role

For many students, donors fade into the background of the school. Students pass their names engraved on signs, but it’s hard to remember which people commemorated are already dead. The long deceased are more likely to have a particular deed they were honored for; the recent donors are more likely to simply be rich. As institutions that accepted money from the Sackler family learned, better if their donor’s story is too boring to merit coverage. 

When donors vote with their money, it’s usually for something — endowing a chair or setting up a program for special studies — often something the university wanted to fund anyway. But this fall, donors, including former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, have been applying the brakes and withholding pledged funds in order to push campuses to take a harder line on antisemitic speech and protests.

At the University of Pennsylvania, donors and trustees succeeded at ousting President M. Elizabeth Magill after months of conflict that began well before the Oct. 7 attacks. Even colleges that haven’t faced public pressure campaigns have released statements to clarify they won’t accept open calls for genocide as part of academic freedom. 

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With donors newly energized, colleges and universities are now thinking about how to defend themselves against their former benefactors. It’s a good time to ask what role donors should play in shaping the future of the colleges they support. How should their influence complement that of faculty and students, if at all? Once a donor’s check is cashed and the building name they bought is written in stone, should they have a continuing role as adviser or advocate? 

Schools should respond by cultivating donors who align with their mission and rejecting gifts from donors whose educational and philosophical agendas clash with the university’s own mission.

Although this fall has been turbulent, I see it as a potential improvement in the donor–school relationship. It is better when donors are explicit about their agendas for the schools they support, and it is better for the donors to have agendas. Their financial stewardship creates a continuing responsibility; it’s not a one-time purchase of a building as a tchotchke. Schools should respond by cultivating donors who align with their mission and rejecting gifts from donors whose educational and philosophical agendas clash with the university’s mission.

It’s a mistake to treat higher education or the liberal arts as an undifferentiated blob. When I see a high-rolling donor who goes around endowing buildings at multiple schools, scrawling their name across many campuses like a genteel graffiti artist, I see a rich person who is consuming, not leading. 

The enrollment collapse

The coming years will be hard for colleges and universities, and some schools will be forced to close. Undergraduate enrollment is declining as the birthrate drops; there are fewer and fewer students to go around. Small schools (serving fewer than 1,000 students on campus) have little margin between a healthy enrollment cohort and a lethally small recruiting year, but even bigger schools will need to compete to maintain their enrollments. Enrollment for young men is dropping much faster than for young women, meaning even if a school could fill its freshman class by raw numbers, it may need to actively poach from competitors to maintain the gender parity that most students are seeking. 

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It will be tempting for schools to keep spending on extraneous amenities to capture students, especially if they see them primarily as customers, not learners. Adding a lazy river or a climbing wall adds to the college experience without clarifying or serving the college’s mission. When the enrollment cliff comes, schools that compete on the basis of amenities will be stuck in a Red Queen race — where schools keep spending and spending, just to stay in the same place. That may lead schools feeling more beholden to donors, as they compete on what they can buy for their students. But the schools that make it through the crunch will be those with a stronger claim about what they offer.  

The schools that survive the enrollment collapse won’t be the ones with the most tricked-out theme parks, nor will they be academically excellent in a generic way. The surviving schools will have made a strong choice about their school’s identity and aims and will be prepared to cultivate or turn away donors accordingly. 

More than amenities

Some schools have already made a strong choice about what sort of education they will offer. Deep Springs puts its focus on manual labor and engagement with nature. Olin College of Engineering culls applicants and has finalists participate in a hands-on, in-person design challenge in order to be admitted. St. John’s College requires all students to read the same curriculum of great books, for all four years. These schools, and other oddballs like them, have a clear case to make to a prospective student or donor. They’ve made a choice about what kind of formation to offer, not just what amenities to put in the brochure. 

Colleges can benefit from the right opinionated donors, who want to support a school that can answer “Why should I go here rather than somewhere else?” Time is running out for schools to assemble support from donors, faculty and other stakeholders in order to prepare a compelling answer. When the presidents of MIT, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania floundered so badly in front of Congress, part of their difficulty was that they trained themselves to be bland and vague, to avoid alienating anyone. Bureaucratic boilerplate is a terrible response to an urgent moral question, and it won’t pass muster when colleges must attract students, rather than leave them untroubled and untouched.

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of “Arriving at Amen” and “Building the Benedict Option.” She runs the substack Other Feminisms, focused on the dignity of interdependence.