How do you say thank you for $3 billion in charitable giving?

If you’re University of Utah President Taylor Randall, you host an event that is part social hour and part tent revival capped with an impressive video/light show to celebrate the record amounts of giving to the state’s flagship university over the past eight years.

The university’s just-concluded “Imagine New Heights” giving campaign raised $3 billion, outstripping the planned goal of $2 billion. Perhaps more remarkable is that the giving window overlapped the pandemic, which disrupted life worldwide.

“I want to say thank you,” Randall told the audience, fighting back emotion.

Not only only did the giving exceed the goal, “it blew right past it,” he said.

Saturday night, the university invited donors and other distinguished Utahns to a gathering on the U. campus to celebrate the milestone and express gratitude for their contributions during festivities held in a tent erected on Presidents Circle.

“It’s been pretty stunning. Those gifts range from $10 to well over $110 million. What’s amazing is, 147,000-plus specific donors, and over a third of those actually gave to student scholarships,” Randall told the Deseret News in an interview prior to Saturday’s event.

Festivities included talks from students who are scholarship recipients, remarks by Randall and Vice President of University Advancement Heidi Woodbury, and the university marching band playing the U. fight song. That was followed by a light show/video projected on the historic Park Building, named for the University of Utah’s first president, John R. Park.

Instead of charitable giving contracting during the COVID-19 pandemic, many donors viewed philanthropy as an opportunity to help address pressing needs, such as making sure students’ educations were not disrupted, Randall said in an earlier interview.

Others contributed to help support COVID-19 testing efforts, research tied to the coronavirus and to support businesses.

“One of the large grants we got was to support students who were not going to have internships. During that time, we started a program called the Hope Corps, which was actually internships for students who would go out and solve community needs during the COVID crisis. That was actually amazing,” he said.

When social distance guidelines made it impossible for large groups to gather on campus for performances, concerts or gallery strolls, one might assume that giving to the arts would suffer as a consequence. Not so, Randall said.

“I think the other really big thing that kept pieces of our campuses alive is massive donations to the arts, because as you know, it was a little difficult to convene. That was the great year of Zoom concerts and things like that, but still wasn’t quite the same as being in person,” he said.

University officials also attribute the new milestone in giving to the state’s strong economy and growing population.

The record $3 billion in giving may be unprecedented, but University of Utah alumni have long been generous in giving back to their alma mater, Randall said.

One of Randall’s earlier-announced goals is that the University of Utah become “a top 10 public university with unsurpassed societal impact.”

As his presidency got underway in the fall of 2021, Randall discovered “there was actually one metric that we were already top 10 and that’s alumni giving. I think that’s what you see in this amazing campaign,” he said.

The campaign began in 2014 and spanned the terms of former University of Utah presidents David Pershing and Ruth Watkins. Its initial $2 billion goal was a step up from the previous “Together We Reach” campaign, which raised $1.65 billion from 2005 to 2014.

“I do need to thank those presidents for doing the bulk of this. For some reason I get to take the credit, but I didn’t do the major lifting here,” Randall said.

That said, Randall, the first U. alum to ascend to the presidency in 50 years, said he deeply enjoys fundraising.

“You get to match people’s dreams with these incredible needs that can impact lives, whether it be lives via research or lives via students, or the lives of faculty members. When you see that come together, it’s like a birthday every day. It’s like giving gifts. It’s really quite fun,” he said.

The “Imagine New Heights” campaign brought in nine of the 10 largest gifts ever given to the university.

More than half of the total — $1.65 billion — is dedicated to health sciences while another $773 million will fund projects on main campus and $427 million supports community engagement efforts.

First-year student Kieran Griffin reads in the courtyard of Kahlert Village at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Some of the major gifts include the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine Building; the Huntsman Mental Health Institute naming and research support; Ken Garff Red Zone; Gardner Commons — the Carolyn and Kem Gardner Building; Kahlert Village student housing; the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital; Kahlert School of Computing; and the Price Computing Building and John and Marcia Price School of Engineering.

Randall said some people give because they are grateful for the education they received at the U., which helped them launch successful careers or businesses. Others give because they or a family member has been affected by a particular disease or condition and they want to contribute to medical education and research.

There are countless other personal connections that figure into the reasons people want to give to the university.

Like the woman who left her home to the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, which has helped the University of Utah become one of the leading institutions nationally for technology commercialization and top-ranked for entrepreneurship, and later Lassonde Studios, housing for student entrepreneurs.

Both were a gift from U. alum Pierre Lassonde, who came to the university in 1971 to seek a master’s in business administration.

Born in Quebec, Lassonde knew little English. His wife, Claudette MacKay-Lassonde, who came to the U. to earn a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, was similarly situated.

They moved to Salt Lake City with only enough money to last them a few months and a significant language barrier.

But they found people who advocated for them and helped them succeed. Both became highly successful professionals and philanthropists with Lassonde becoming one of the most famous gold investors in the world, and one of the biggest donors to the David Eccles School of Business.

One such advocate, a woman who made sure Lassonde had a research assistantship so the young couple could pay the bills during their respective graduate studies, did them another kindness: She left her home to the Lassonde Institute.

First-year students study in one of the community rooms of Kahlert Village at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“It’s that kind of just deep care that you see in people in their giving. That’s really pretty inspirational,” Randall said.

When people give to the university, “it’s just tremendous to feel the support,” Randall said. But it also “makes you realize what you now have to do to move this university further into the future,” he said.

“Almost all of these are investments into the future,” whether it’s support for programs and research, scholarships or facilities, he said.

“It’s really taken us from a good state university to an excellent state university, and now to national university. We will be transforming this campus because of where this campaign took us,” Randall said.

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Some of that work is underway as the university works toward a goal of 5,000 units of student housing within five years to transform what has traditionally been a commuter campus into a campus community.

In the coming years, another 50 acres of campus-adjacent land will become available once Fort Douglas is fully relocated.

While Saturday’s event is a celebration of the success of the “Imagine New Heights” campaign, for Randall it is also an opportunity to express thanks for the gifts to and for the university.

“The important thing right now is to express gratitude. The fun part about this celebration is we’ve just been able to look back and document what so many of these guests have done to transform the lives of people here in the state.”

Construction of the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine building progresses at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News
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