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Prebys gift to SDSU highlights private funds push

With Wednesday's announcement of a $20 million gift to San Diego State University from philanthropist Conrad Prebys, some students learned they may be eligible for the scholarships it will fund.

While Prebys' gift will create scholarships annually for 150 students who are either veterans or in biomedical research, the creative and performing arts, the Guardian Scholars program, entrepreneurship, leadership and the SDSU Honors program, it won't pay for something on the minds of many: faculty lost after years of budget cuts.

San Diego State has been inching closer to its 2007 goal of raising $500 million from private sources — an initiative the university calls “Campaign for SDSU.”

The $20 million gift is the largest single donation to SDSU and it put the university past the $465 million mark in the comprehensive fundraising campaign.

A day before the donation was announced, SDSU began holding what will be a series of forums planned to last through most of February about a potential $200 to $500 per-semester increase in student fees.

The increase would be targeted at one thing — hiring back faculty and staff, which would allow SDSU's schedule of classes to look more like it did a few years ago. SDSU has lost more than 200 faculty members in the past six years.

The forums process is what the school calls "alternative consultation” and is an alternative to the referendum process.

SDSU spokesman Greg Block said philanthropy is one way in which the university is working toward replenishing state funding for its programs.

That Prebys' gift is not going toward what SDSU is asking its students to fund in a potential fee hike is the nature of philanthropy, he said.

"We have a team of development officers who go out and try to raise money," Block said. "They talk to people of all levels and all needs" and approach them with the university's various needs.

"Sometimes it matches up, and sometimes somebody says, 'No, I want to give to athletics' or sometimes someone says, 'No, I want to support the police department.' You can't twist somebody's arm and make them give to something," he said.

The university has sought and received funding to replenish faculty levels and keeping certain departments funded; the gifts just don't often amount to that given by Prebys for scholarships.

In December, SDSU alumnus Jack McGrory donated $1.2 million to support three causes: internships for undergraduates in the School of Public Affairs and funding for the Jack McGrory Internship Adviser; scholarships for high-achieving students in the Department of Classics and Humanities; and staffing of the university's Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center, SDSU's center for military veteran support.

A gift received in 2012 from SDSU professors emeriti Carey Wall and Terry O’Donnell provided $2.4 million to SDSU’s musical theater program, endowing a faculty position in the program.

Other gifts have been received, as well.

SDSU spokeswoman Beth Downing Chee said the university hasn't discussed with Prebys the possibility of another gift aimed at something other than scholarships.

With the wide variety of what donors wish to fund, Block said the potential fee increase would do for the entire university what Wall and O'Donnell's gift did for their department: create dedicated revenue to replenish and retain faculty.

"Hiring faculty doesn't resonate with everybody," Block said, noting challenges in raising money.

SDSU students won't have the final say on the fee increase, Block said; that would belong to SDSU President Elliot Hirshman. The opinions of students in more than two dozen forums will be taken seriously, though, he said. Students will be given ballots with options ranging from $200 per semester to $500 per semester, and be able to provide feedback during the meetings.

If implemented, the fee increase, Block said, would be spread over four years.

The last time SDSU students agreed to charge themselves more in fees was in 2010, when they voted to approve the $94 per semester increase to pay for the $104 million student union, which opened last month. The alternative consultation method was used in 2008, when the school adopted an $80 increase in its Instructionally Related Activities fee.

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