A Look at the Biggest Fundraising Campaign in UT’s History

When you are a new student at The University of Texas, your freshly minted student ID in hand, the sprawling campus is most easily navigated via acronym. On the digital, searchable map, the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art is “BMA.” The Jackson Geological Sciences Building is “JGB.” And what was formerly the “SAC,” or Student Activity Center, is now “WCP” to honor former UT President William C. Powers Jr.  

These building acronyms rattle off the tongue and are easily confused on the way to class in those early weeks of a first semester. But behind these Scrabble-tile nicknames of imposing buildings full of mismatched architecture and often vintage infrastructure is what happens inside them—the quest for knowledge and the next big thing. 

On March 4, The University of Texas formally launched the “What Starts Here” campaign. Although public and private universities are, of course, always welcoming of donor funds—campaign or not—these inspirational titles and goals help frame up periods of immense growth and expansion. President Jay Hartzell, PhD ’98, Life Member, the 30th president of the university and only the fourth to oversee a major campaign like this, wants to use it to focus the entire university community on what comes next. Or rather, what could come next, if UT Austin lives up to its full potential. In his inaugural address, Hartzell set a goal of making UT Austin the highest-impact public research university in the world. 

In a brochure mailed out to thousands of Longhorns across the world, the university lays out an ambitious pitch: “It all starts with you—alumni, friends, discerning investors—and a vision for what could be. Your gift to UT can unlock student potential, recruit world-class faculty, transform health and care, and create a vibrant future for Texas and beyond. Join us and change the world.”  

Those four grand goals are at the center of this campaign and are the guiding principles for the whole enterprise. Each donation, each new building, program, or even college, will be a tool for accomplishing one of these things.  

As the campaign begins in earnest and much fanfare takes place across campus, there is an army of volunteers, many of them very high-profile donors themselves, who are guiding the effort from behind the scenes. Donations made by many of these volunteers since 2016, while the campaign was in its silent phase, or “leadership phase,” exceed $3.35 billion. So much progress has already been made. The big number, the goal at the top of the veritable thermometer, will be $6 billion, which includes an unprecedented and ambitious goal of $1 billion alone for student support. Each campaign is bigger than the last. In fact, that’s the point.  

In 2022, we may take for granted that the flagship public university in Texas is trying to change the world. But that famous tagline, “what starts here changes the world,” hasn’t always been our guiding principle. It originated in 2002, just a few years before UT’s “Campaign for Texas,” which ran from 2006–2014 under the tenure of President Powers (of the aforementioned “WCP” fame) and raised $3.12 billion. Since then, the notion of reaching far beyond the Forty Acres and disrupting, improving, and fundamentally shifting everything we possibly can for the betterment of humanity has been a daily call to arms for Longhorns. 

This may have been difficult to imagine in 1883, when the state’s constitution mandated the creation of a “university of the first class.” That phrase was enigmatic and lofty to be sure, but it’s striking just how much the rhetoric has evolved. As time has passed, these fundraising campaigns have periodically reset the bar much higher, because a school as audacious as The University of Texas at Austin just keeps blowing past its best.  

Billion-dollar marquee figures may seem abstract, but when students are walking the winding sidewalks of campus or zipping along on motorized scooters, they pass the very things that the most significant gifts from those last campaigns created, namely institutions that are hard to imagine UT Austin without. What would the university be without the Butler School of Music, the Engineering Education and Research Center (EERC), the Moody College of Communication, the Gates-Dell Computer Complex, Rowling Hall and Mulva Hall for McCombs School of Business, or the Dell Medical School? 

If you happen to pass by the JGB (which, if you lose your way, is just north of the Martin Luther King Jr. Statue), you’ll be going further back in fundraising campaigns, to President Larry Faulkner and his “We’re Texas” campaign, which spanned 1997–2004 and raised $1.62 billion. That was the impetus for what is still the largest gift The University of Texas has ever received: $232 million from the estate of John Jackson, BA ’40, Distinguished Alumnus, and Katherine Jackson, Life Members. In 2001, when the Jacksons initially gave $25 million for the study of geoscience, the subject was a humble department which had been founded at the university in 1888. With the funds and assets ultimately bequeathed by the Jacksons, it grew into an entirely separate unit at the level of a college. Now students are working diligently inside the JGB, researching the most pressing issues of our time—climate change and energy among them. And the impact of this gift spreads far north of the Forty Acres, too, to the Pickle Research Campus. You’ll need a car for that trip. 

Since Longhorns have been known to be motivated by friendly competition, it’s notable that Inside Higher Ed reports that the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California are tied when it comes to their largest-ever gifts. They each clock in at $200 million. In terms of overall campaigns, Michigan completed “Victors for Michigan” after 10 years in 2018 and raised $5.28 billion. Texas A&M just closed their latest campaign, called “Lead by Example,” last February with a total of $4.25 billion. The University of California, Berkley, is on its way to reaching its latest $6 billion goal, from a campaign launched in 2020. And Ohio State, not to be outdone, set its sights on hitting a target not made of money, but of donors. They aim to get one million by 2023. 

An undertaking like this ultimately falls to people like Sergio Delgado, the chief development officer at UT’s School of Nursing, to make it all come true. To transform health care as we know it, we’ll need to shore up the world’s most trusted profession. Delgado, BA ’05, MEd ’15, Life Member, has been working at UT since 2008, which means he was here through the last campaign under Powers. When asked why he thinks alumni should—and will—give to the School of Nursing during this one, he put it all in perspective: “A lot of people during this pandemic have seen firsthand what the profession of nursing has done for the world. They’ve seen the value in supporting our frontline workers. It has brought to light just what it is that we do at this school.” 

Jeanne and Mickey Klein, both Distinguished Alumni of the university and some of its most prolific supporters, are serving on two committees for the “What Starts Here” campaign—one for the Blanton Museum of Art and another for the College of Education. The Kleins have poured themselves into the dual causes of the arts and public education for much of their lives. They have amassed one of the world’s most impressive collections of modern art, much of it housed at the Blanton so that the public can appreciate it, too. They were instrumental in bringing Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin to campus, which has quickly become a landmark destination in the city. They have also championed research-based programming like Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and successfully led the charge to get it into the Austin Independent School District. 

As committee members, they will be ambassadors and advocates for both areas in this gargantuan effort. Each college, school, or unit across campus will have such a committee, and the work of these volunteers will ladder up to and inform that larger campaign. “The best way to raise money is through relationships,” says Jeanne Klein, BS ’67, Life Member. “We know people, and they know our passion for The University of Texas.” 

“It’s most effective to have an objective—a goal—rather than just X amount of dollars,” says Mickey Klein, BS ’58, JD ’63, Life Member. “If you have certain projects within this overall goal, it’s easier to raise the money. We’re trying to show people different ways to give support to the university that will further these goals that are attainable and achievable.” 

Just as it has done throughout the university’s history, the Texas Exes will play a big role in bringing Longhorns together for this massive philanthropic effort. The campaign will also help take key programming pieces of UT’s official alumni association to the next level. The Exes has four main goals for the “What Starts Here” campaign. The first is supporting Camp Texas, a program that welcomes the newest Longhorns to UT Austin before they follow the map to their first on-campus classes. The three-day retreat teaches incoming freshmen about life on campus, university traditions, and prepares them for a successful college career. With donor support, Camp Texas could be free and accessible to every university student. 

The prestigious Forty Acres Scholars Program, now in its 10th year of existence, is another priority area. Through major donations to the program endowment, as well as to the enrichment component of the scholarship—a game-changer that enables these brilliant Scholars to study, research, and work all over the world at no cost to them—the program can continue to nurture this amazing pool of talent and help the leaders of this new generation make their singular mark on the world. 

Opportunity Scholarships from the Texas Exes for historically underrepresented students are the key to fostering a more diverse and welcoming campus. These scholarships, along with programming that facilitates unique connections between students and prominent alumni in their field of study, can remove barriers to success in industries that have historically rewarded people for knowing the right people. The Texas Exes wants to unlock those corner-office doors for everyone. 

Lastly, if you skipped past it to read this story, read Texas Exes Executive Director Chuck Harris’ letter. He has a vision to transform parts of the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center into a place where the collective story of Longhorn greatness, and the impact of our alumni across just about every field that exists, can be told and understood in the most compelling way. Visitors and prospective students will be able to stop at the Alumni Center to get a sense of the legacy and history they could one day join. 

The universal experience of college, of leaving the safety of your bubble behind you, is that you look around and start to ask the big questions. Students and professors do this constantly. With a philanthropic campaign, the university asks every supporter to do the same. As Hartzell writes in that glossy brochure, “What we do on the Forty Acres transforms lives—for individuals and across societies. Now, we’re asking: How can we have an even greater impact on the world?” 

Mickey Klein puts it this way: “Another reason that we give is partly selfish. We get back so much more than what we give. Supporting these programs is a way for us to remain active and feel invested in the university. If you love this university, you don’t have to give significant amounts of money, but it’s important to stay involved. I still feel such a close tie to the university because of the activities we have participated in, and I think others can do the same.” 

With all the charitable organizations that exist today and with so much need in the world, the Kleins say they are approached all the time about new projects. And although they welcome it, they have always kept their eyes on UT Austin. The idea of giving through The University of Texas to fuel positive change in areas like teaching, nursing, and the arts for many years to come has always been compelling to the Kleins. “Mickey and I feel like we can make a bigger impact if we give to one place,” Jeanne Klein says. “Other than giving back to society and culture, we have decided that giving to UT is how we might maybe make a real difference.” 

Credit: Courtesy of UT Austin, Marsha Miller for UT Austin


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