McKnight Foundation gives U $15 million for faculty positions

Erin Ghere

University President Mark Yudof accepted a check for $15 million from the McKnight Foundation on Dec. 16 with a large smile on his face.
The gift, which was the second-largest in University history, will create 15 endowed faculty positions, as stipulated by the McKnight Foundation. The gift is unique because unlike most arrangements, the University has the discretion to give endowments to the professors and departments of its choice.
Rather than allocating the funds to certain areas of study, the McKnight Foundation is giving the University freedom to use the money to retain faculty members who are being courted by other universities. In addition, the University can use the funds to attract top-notch faculty members from other schools.
At the mid-December presentation, Yudof said the gift was “the opportunity of the century” for the University.
However, the money is only a drop in the bucket the University’s $1.3 billion fund-raising goal.

Fund raising and pay raising
The McKnight gift is the largest in Campaign Minnesota, the school’s five-year, $1.3 billion fund-raiser. The largest gift ever arrived in 1986 when late Minnesota businessman and philanthropist Curt Carlson gave $25 million to the University.
Already half of the fund-raising goal has been collected, although much of it was received prior to October’s kick off. About $100 million has been raised since the announcement, bringing the total to $730 million.
A large chunk of Campaign Minnesota’s goal, $275 million, is designated for faculty expenditures, including the creation of endowed chair positions and professorships at the University. Other funding will be directed toward students, research, service and outreach, libraries and new facilities.
Before Campaign Minnesota, University officials had continually gone to the Legislature for faculty-pay funding, but in recent years they have received far less than what they had desired.
During the 1999 legislative session, Yudof requested a 5 percent raise for faculty and staff members; the University received funding for a 3 percent raise. Although Campaign Minnesota will allocate a substantial amount of funding for faculty salaries, University officials said they will continue to look to the Legislature to supply base funding for general-faculty pay raises.
In 1997-98, the University was ranked 25th in faculty pay rates among 30 public research universities. Yudof has routinely said it would take a 15 percent raise, plus inflation, to make the University competitive with the top five universities.
The average salary of a full professor at the University is $81,000 — nearly $13,500 less than the average for the top research universities.
In addition, the University has to compete with private colleges, many of which pay up to $30,000 more each year for similar positions.
Already, 10 percent of faculty positions, or 266 total chairs, are endowed with $1 million each and fund salary increases and professional costs, including travel expenses, graduate assistants’ pay and laboratory equipment.
One McKnight-endowed chair has already been awarded to Ronald Phillips, a plant genetics professor who was being wooed by other universities. A Regents’ professor, Phillips has been a member of the University’s faculty since 1968 and did pioneering work in biotechnology.
Yudof said he will allocate the funds where needed, from the sciences to the liberal arts. Additionally, he said more chairs could be created in liberal arts fields because they are less likely to get substantial donations from outside sources; more lucrative fields, such as technology and business, receive the biggest gifts, he said.
“The importance of this gift cannot be overstated,” Yudof said. “It will give me and future presidents the ability to respond quickly to recruitment and retention opportunities and to direct resources to fields in which the University can achieve national prominence.”
The McKnight Foundation has a history of supporting University faculty members. Two other faculty-recognition programs are funded by McKnight donations, which total $28 million. During 1998, the University was home to 107 McKnight Land-Grant professors and 28 McKnight Distinguished professors. The McKnight Foundation provided funding for both programs during the University’s last capital campaign in the 1980s.
— The Star Tribune contributed to this report.

Erin Ghere covers state government and welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3217.