Michael Knetter left his position as dean of the Wisconsin School of Business in 2010 to become president and CEO of the UW Foundation, the official gift-receiving organization for UW–Madison. In 2013, the foundation helped the university launch All Ways Forward, a comprehensive campaign aimed at raising $3.2 billion by 2020.
Where do things stand with the campaign?
By midyear this year, nine months after the campaign was publicly launched — but three years after we had started the quiet phase of counting gifts — we are over halfway to our $3.2 billion goal. But while we’re thrilled to be over halfway there, we can’t take for granted that we will repeat the success of the transformational gifts by the Morgridges and Nicholases, or that the economy will remain robust throughout the remainder of the campaign.
Alumni have a lot of concern over the UW’s relationship with the legislature. How do you see this evolving?
It’s been a really extraordinary period for the University of Wisconsin in terms of the degree of tension that exists right now between our elected officials and the university over both resources and regulations, and even the very essence of our being, the definition of the Wisconsin Idea. Many public universities are facing the same tension, particularly in regions that aren’t growing a lot. And [Wisconsin is] not. That’s put a lot of pressure on the state’s finances and made it more difficult for the state to grow its contribution toward higher education at the same rate as private universities’ revenue streams have been able to grow.
How are private institutions different from UW–Madison?
Private universities rely on high tuition and philanthropy. It’s been a good period for increasing tuition, because the value of university degrees has gone up a lot. So if you don’t need to be burdened by concerns about affordability, that’s a great revenue opportunity. And it’s been a great period for philanthropy because, ironically, of the increasing concentration of wealth. We are fortunate that Wisconsin alumni who have attained great financial success have been very generous to UW–Madison. Alumni such as the Morgridges and Nicholases, who built successful businesses, are now transforming the educational experience for the benefit of future generations.
Not everyone can give a major gift. What would you tell those who ask what difference their $50 or $100 makes?
When you go to Camp Randall, there are always some people who start the Wave, but it only works if everybody participates. The Wisconsin way to appreciate the gifts others have made is to say, “Now I’m going to do my part, too.” All great universities have some big donors. But our strength isn’t in having a high proportion of wealthy alumni. We don’t. Not higher than Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Princeton. But we have a lot more alumni than they have. Our strength is in our numbers.
Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by John Allen
Published in the Winter 2016 issue