By Thomas Regan and Julia Corrigan
With Rider flipping couch cushions and looking in every drawer to find money to cover a reported $7.6 million financial deficit, fundraising efforts have been closely scrutinized, and there has been a claim that the fundraising department’s expenses were barely covered by what was being drawn in through donations.
The possibility was uncovered by an outside consultant for Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The consultant, Dr. Howard Bunsis, an accounting professor at Eastern Michigan University, shared his findings with the union: the university raised $3 million for the endowment in the 2014 fiscal year and spent $2.9 million in fundraising expenses, he said.
The expenses include salaries and efforts to raise money. However, according to Jonathan Meer, vice president for university advancement, his department costs also include University Communications salaries for public relations employees responsible for Rider’s fundraising.
Moreover, Meer asserts the university has raised more money in recent years than ever before, and he states that the endowment is not the only component of fundraising.
“If they had asked how much we raised, we don’t keep that a secret,” Meer said. “In fact, we’re proud of it. We’re raising a lot more money now than we ever have for the university. In 2014, they say the administration raised $3 million. We did raise a little over $3 million, but they neglected to include grants and contracts, and other contributions — so scholarships, capital projects, building new buildings, refurbishing buildings — so they got that wrong. They really got that wrong.”
Meer explained that other contributions include “current-use restricted, current-use unrestricted and capital dollars.” These types of gifts allow the university to spend money on projects based on donor requests.
Despite the disputed claims, the AAUP says its general concerns are not without merit, as the university did have its least effective year in three years. Just over $5.8 million, according to the finances provided by the university, was raised in the fiscal year 2015, compared to more than $9.1 million raised the year before.
“Fundraising has a number of components, but key among those is increasing the endowment which is the area that the consultant focused on,” said Jeffery Halpern, the Rider AAUP chapter’s chief grievance officer. “[The consultant] also noted that grants and contracts declined from $7.8 million to $3.0 million from 2014 to 2015.”
While Meer admits that this year has been disappointing, he states that several donors wanted to wait to see what the new president, Dr. Gregory Dell’Omo, will have in store for the university before making any sort of financial commitment.
“When there’s uncertainty, money tends to stay on the sidelines,” he said. “Markets do not like uncertainty; donors do not like uncertainty. They like to know who they’re dealing with — who’s at the helm. I have a lot of confidence that we’re going to see a very solid fundraising year this year.”
Meer also notes that the university’s most prosperous fundraising year ever in terms of cash brought in was fiscal year 2013. The $14.1 million raised that year included a bequest of $7 million that supported the construction of Westminster’s Cullen Center.
“With fundraising, it’s an imprecise science; our CFO, Julie Karns, and I have this discussion all the time,” said Meer. “She’d love it to be more dependable. It just doesn’t work that way. We have, for example, people who put us in their will, and then they pass away. We don’t know when they’re going to pass away.”
Meer does believe his department needs to increase fundraising this year, and understands that enrollment needs to increase. However, he states that it’s not that easy.
“Yes, we can do better and we should do better, and the union is right, we do aspire to raise more money,” he said. “If everyone could do it, everyone would do it, but there are lots of institutions that are just like us that raised less money than we did.”