The University of Missouri three years ago faced an uphill struggle to recover from racially charged protests that uprooted the administration, placed the school under a scrutinizing national spotlight and left some supporters threatening to take back donations.
But on Wednesday, MU announced that its fundraising has broken records — topping $1 billion and indicating the university may be well into a sound mending.
Financial supporters of the Columbia campus donated more than $147 million in cash gifts in the fiscal year ending June 30. That's a 22 percent increase over the $121 million raised in 2017. University leaders are thrilled and credit new leadership, a responsive legislature and dedicated alumni.
“The support of the Mizzou community is remarkable,” said MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright. “It has been a pleasure to meet MU alumni and friends during my first year here and learn what the university means to them."
Factor in pledges, and the university raised nearly $162 million in the past year.
MU's fundraising campaign, "Mizzou: Our Time to Lead," launched in 2015 and has now climbed to $1.063 billion.
This year's fundraising "puts us in the top 30 public schools getting that level of giving," said Tom Hiles, vice chancellor for advancement. The university hopes to raise $230 million more, for a goal of $1.3 billion by 2020, which "puts us in an elite category" of institutions with billion-dollar campaigns, Hiles said. Just 43 higher education campaigns are seeking a goal of more than $1 billion.
The campaign was launched in October 2015, just one month before student protests over alleged racism erupted on the campus. The protests, including a hunger strike and a promised game boycott by MU football players, led to the resignation of the University of Missouri System president and the campus chancellor.
MU officials admit the protests, and how the university responded, damaged the school's image. The following year, incoming freshman enrollment dropped below 5,000 students for the first time since 2007. And last year's freshmen enrollment of 4,134 students was the lowest in more than a decade. Since the protests, MU has been graduating more people than it's enrolling.
"And we lost some donors," Hiles said.
But for the most part, he said, alumni remained loyal, even when they were unhappy with what was happening on the campus. It was as if MU alums were saying, you can say what you want about me but don't talk about my family, Hiles said.
And money continued to pour in. In fiscal year 2016, the university set a record with $171 million in cash donations and pledges, representing a 15 percent increase over the previous record set in 2014 when $164.5 million was raised.
Hiles is optimistic and sees a full recovery a few years down the road.
"We are starting to see enrollment come back, " he said.
University officials said in June that MU is expecting this fall's freshman class to grow more than 14 percent. They expect overall enrollment will level or increase slightly.
Another boon for the university, Hiles said, came earlier this year, when Missouri legislators restored 10 percent across-the-board cuts that former Gov. Eric Greitens had imposed.
And now that MU has Cartwright as its permanent chancellor and President Mun Choi is permanent at the system level, "I think a lot of great work has been done to restore confidence. Stable leadership was key," Hiles said.
The upward trend in private giving won't mend cuts the university recently made to its budget, Hiles said. In an effort to manage a $49 million budget shortfall, MU eliminated 185 positions and laid off about 30 staff members.
"Donors don't give to fill budget deficits," Hiles said. "They certainly are concerned about deficits, but when donors give they don't want to see their money drying up in a hole. They want to see it doing something dynamic, something that enhances the excellence of the university."
Southeast of MU in Rolla, Missouri University of Science and Technology has completed the second largest fundraising year in that university's history, with $22.6 million in charitable gifts and pledges received by the end of the 2018 fiscal year.
That amount represents a 53 percent increase over the previous fiscal year and a 112 percent increase over two years ago, university officials announced on Tuesday.
Officials at the University of Missouri-Kansas City said a report on the donations and pledges received there won't be available until later this month.