Front and Centre: an elaborate fiction

Taxpayers and students are not donors

The controversial fee hike motion recently passed by the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) council omitted three key words that might have killed the proposal outright, had they been spoken back in November.

Front and Centre.

The U of M launched its capital campaign (with an unprecedented $500-million goal) under that name in October, after a “quiet phase” lasting a few years in which they made plans and approached potential donors. This is fairly normal for similar campaigns.

What is less normal is including a large government contribution in the total. Shortly after Front and Centre launched, the province announced its commitment to provide $150 million to the campaign. Although this contribution is branded as a lump sum, it actually represents a promise to give the university grants for certain strategic and capital projects over a period of seven years.

These grants will have to be approved in each year’s budget – and, of course, that period covers two provincial elections (it’s already unclear whether the $150 million promise will survive the first of those, scheduled for April 19). That means there are plenty of opportunities for the vagaries of the economy and provincial politics to cause this deal to be restructured.

Even more unusual is Front and Centre’s student contribution. When UMSU’s fee hike motion was presented to the board of governors for approval Jan. 26, it included a brief summary. This summary was the first time anyone publicly mentioned that the $15.9 million to be raised by the fee hike over a period of 10 years is to be considered a contribution to the Front and Centre campaign.

“It is important that [UMSU] participates in this culture of philanthropy,” the summary said.

The money can’t in any reasonable sense be considered a “donation” to the university. But it will still count toward the campaign’s total.

A few back-of-the-envelope calculations will show how outrageous this is. UMSU is contributing over $600 per member to the campaign, or $64 per member, a year. Meanwhile, Manitoba taxpayers are contributing $150 per member of the population (excluding those who are 14 and under), or $21 a year.

This means students are contributing around three times as much per year to the campaign as taxpayers generally. In total, UMSU is promising to pay around four times as much per head as the provincial government.

The UMSU contribution is also larger than any single private donation that has been announced so far.

An elaborate fiction

A university capital campaign is supposed to bolster a university’s endowment and capital assets by soliciting donations – usually large ones contributed by wealthy alumni, community members, foundations, and private companies. For example, Harvard University is currently running a campaign with a goal of $6.5 billion, and it has secured several eight and nine-figure gifts from private donors.

The U of M is certainly no Harvard, but one would think a capital campaign here would be more or less the same idea, just with smaller dollar figures. One would be wrong.

Front and Centre’s total has been inflated by rebranding things that no reasonable person would describe as donations. A huge chunk ($165 million, roughly one-third) of the money counted toward Front and Centre comes from either the public purse or the university’s own students (many of whom are also Manitoba taxpayers).

The Winnipeg Free Press reported that the U of M raises around $20 million in donations in an average year. For the five-year period of the Front and Centre campaign, the university would expect to raise around $100 million by doing no extra work.

This means more than half the campaign’s goal is already accounted for without the university approaching any more private donors than business as usual.

It may seem harmless, and to some extent it is. Who among us doesn’t regularly exaggerate their achievements? But the smoke and mirrors behind Front and Centre call into question pretty much everything the U of M says publicly – about this subject or any other one. It is tremendously difficult to scrape the branding glitz off the messages put out by the marketing and communications office and get to the real point. This is why you haven’t seen much critical coverage of Front and Centre in the Manitoban or in any of the so-called professional media outlets that might be expected to know better.

It also allows the university to take credit for money it hasn’t done the legwork to raise. This means students are subjected to the double indignity of being made to pay their own way and expected to be grateful for the opportunity.

For example, the U of M currently provides undergraduate research grants, but conventional wisdom is that there’s not enough money to support all the students who should be getting grants. The Front and Centre campaign includes a goal of $10 million to fund service and experiential learning, including undergraduate research. Meanwhile, UMSU intends to raise $5 million for undergraduate research, which is technically counted as a Front and Centre contribution.

This means that the bulk of the funding for undergraduate research will be coming from undergraduate students themselves. At that rate, why bother even having a university?

Paying it forward

A few years ago, the philanthropist Marcel Desautels gave the U of M a record $20 million donation toward its faculty of music. Desautels is an interesting figure who struck it rich in the business world and is now doing what he can to pay it forward, endowing university departments across the country. The Desautels faculty of music is special, though, because it represents a labour of love.

Desautels’s donation to the U of M was a game-changer on many levels. It utterly transformed the small and little-known faculty into a growing powerhouse that makes major improvements each year. On a personal level, I’m tremendously grateful for it because it paid much of my tuition and made the difference between following my heart and studying law or some other miserable vocation.

This is an excellent thing: successful people doing what they can to give young people a leg up. Seeking out languishing cultural institutions, seeing their potential, and giving them a shot in the arm. Part of the university’s role is to seek out such people and plead its case to them. This brings in external money that allows tuition or the costs of new facilities to be offset without charging students and taxpayers extra.

But I fear the university is moving away from that direction. I fear it is moving more to a model of service delivery to consumers where the twisted logic of charging students more so you can offer them more financial aid is entrenched. Counting public funds and student fees toward a fundraising drive sets a dangerous precedent on this front.

All at once, with the support of the province, the university administration, and the UMSU executive – and with the enthusiastic approval of the gullible lemmings on UMSU council – a backdoor route to raising tuition has been established. This is also a dangerous precedent.

Provincial grants and increased student fees are not donations, no matter how cleverly you brand them. If the U of M is truly going to transform itself into a world-class institution, it will need to conduct its public business in a credible, forthright manner. The first step is to wash out the snake oil and get serious.