Boston University is launching the public phase of its first full-fledged fund-raising campaign, a billion-dollar effort, with an 82-event alumni extravaganza Saturday, culminating in a Boston Pops concert at Agganis Arena.
In many respects, the public push is well timed. It follows seven years of financial and academic improvements at the school and two years of a “quiet phase” of fund-raising that has already raked in $420 million. On Friday night the school announced a major new donation: $10 million from Dubai-based entrepreneur Rajen Kilachand, on top of the $25 million he has already given, the largest donation in BU’s history.
In other respects, the campaign’s timing could be better.
The school has local competition for dollars. Harvard University, MIT, and Northeastern University are expected to launch major capital campaigns soon. Brandeis University will launch one next year. Boston College has had one underway since 2008 that has almost hit the billion-dollar mark, and in 2011 Tufts University completed a campaign that brought in $1.2 billion.
Last year was an annus horribilis for BU, which saw a graduate student slain, an accident that killed three students on a study-abroad program, two hazing scandals, and the high-profile arrests of two hockey players on sexual assault charges.
As the new school year was starting, confidential documents from the university’s hockey culture task force leaked out with tales of troubling team behavior.
But BU administrators say the hockey debacle is a blip in the history of the school, one they do not expect to overshadow their campaign.
“It hasn’t been a hot button for our alumni,” said Scott Nichols, BU’s senior vice president of development and alumni relations.
True, a few have threatened to withhold gifts. “I am not giving a penny until [hockey coach Jack] Parker is gone and an independent investigation is conducted,” Sean Lyons, class of 1993, wrote in a letter to BU president Robert Brown shortly after the recent revelations. But those letters have been a tiny exception, rather than the rule, Nichols said.
Nor do administrators expect the other disturbing events of last year, or the still struggling US economy, to dampen their effort.
Fund-raising during the past year did not dip. The school received gifts from 30,031 alumni, or 4,678 more than in the previous year.
That is a change for a school that, until recently, did not have especially engaged alumni as a whole and had never embarked on a major fund-raising effort.
“The university just wasn’t focused in that direction,” said Nichols. “We had presidents and boards that didn’t see it as a priority.”
Five years ago, Nichols added, when Brown and the school’s trustees started discussing the possibility of a billion-dollar campaign, “it was seen as, ‘What are you people smoking?’ ”
But the university planted some seed capital. It asked trustees to give, raking in $130 million from them. It ramped up alumni outreach during the past four years, too, almost tripling the number of events held around the world annually.
In particular, it sought out international donors such as Kilachand. That effort was not entirely focused on millionaires and billionaires.
The school’s Chinese alumni club has pledged $1 million toward the campaign.
The school also expects to pull in a considerable amount from the 7,000 alumni who are descending on campus this weekend.
On Friday, outside a tent set up for Alumni Weekend registration in Marsh Plaza, several BU graduates remembered their times at the school. A few said they had not heard of the hockey team controversy, including allegations of rampant drinking and boorish sexual escapades. And most others had limited knowledge of the events.
But everyone asked said it would not affect their decision to donate.
Anthony Amato, who graduated with a biology degree in 1983 and a doctorate in dentistry in 1987, said he remembers his time at BU fondly.
Amato said the hockey imbroglio would have no impact on his decision to give. He said he recently gave $2,500 to the dentistry school for the first time in 25 years.
“The hockey thing, I don’t know enough about it, but it’s not going to determine how I feel about this university at all,” he said.
Dennis McNichol, who said he graduated from the School of Management in 1982, said he has donated to the university for five to six years, and that will not change.
“When I was a freshman, my RA said the only thing they can’t take from you is your education,” said McNichol, 52, of Westchester, Pa. And that education, he said, came from the college he remains loyal to. “I still have BU,” he said.
Lisa Best, 54, of Denver graduated from the College of Communicationin 1980. She said she had not heard of allegations against hockey players.
But Best, who said she has donated to her alma mater consistently for five to seven years, said she will continue to contribute regardless of the controversy.
“To me the fact that BU is answering to this, they are looking and changing, shows that they’re learning too,” she said
BU plans to spend only part of the money it raises on buildings, which are a focus of many other capital campaigns. Much of the funds will go instead to other priorities, such as financial aid, faculty hiring, and research.
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