All of us in Connecticut should be proud of the rising prestige of our University of Connecticut, originally founded as an agricultural college in Storrs in 1881. The 2014 edition of “Best Colleges,” published by U.S. News & World Report, ranks UConn as the 57th best national university in the country, obviously behind such eminences such as Princeton, Harvard and Yale, but ahead of Syracuse, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Rutgers, etc.

The significant improvement is due in large part to the considerable generosity of the state, in showering the university with millions of dollars of grants. In the past few years, that support has steadily declined, from covering 50 percent of UConn’s needs in fiscal 1991 to 27.5 percent in 2013.

Recently, the university hired as the president of its fundraising UConn Foundation Josh Newton, from Emory University in Atlanta, which raised $1.7 billion (51 percent from 26 gifts) in the last seven years, compared to UConn Foundation’s $405 million (51 percent from 230 gifts).

According to the Hartford Courant, Newton stated that “we’re not getting the big gifts” and that he is “shooting for some headline-grabbing philanthropy.” As a start, Newton engineered the acquisition by the foundation of a stately house on Scarborough Street, in the handsome west end of Hartford, immediately across from the legendary Austin House (which is a national historical landmark, owned by the Wadsworth Atheneum) for more than $600,000, the purchase price covered by foundation donors (extra expense to be covered being for renovation and operation). The purpose of this new house is to provide a Hartford presence for UConn President Susan Herbst, where she may hold occasional “very small group dinners for high end donors” and stay overnight, as she generally attempts to demonstrate the importance of the university to its affluent constituency and to the Legislature. Herbst already resides in the president’s house in Storrs, which in the past has led to controversy over renovation costs.

Newton believes that the great challenge is cultivating within more of UConn’s alumni and its supporters a prevailing “sense of gratitude and obligation” that many private colleges inculcate in their pupils when they first set foot on campus. In 2012, only 18 percent of UConn alumni provided financial support to the university. According to Herbst, Newton will be “the setup man” in her appeals to major donors. The type of gift UConn is seeking is exemplified by the recent $10 million grant from United Technologies Corp. to support the university’s technology programs.

A potential problem is the possibility that Congress may amend the Internal Revenue Code to reduce the tax benefits significant donors receive from their gifts.

While more aggressive fundraising activities are unquestionably desirable, the foundation should proceed cautiously, as dealing with potential donors has led to legal and ethical issues at other institutions. For example, questions could be raised concerning the propriety and efficacy of acquiring the Scarborough Street house. Naming rights to buildings must be carefully handled, and donors advised that their influence goes only so far as making “suggestions,” rather than “control.” (Recall the flap several years ago, when a major donor to the new football training complex complained that he had not been consulted in advance as to the selection of the new head football coach, and demanded the return of his funds.)

Many national universities use funds raised by successful athletic teams to cover major portions of their operating expenses. UConn has obtained much favorable publicity (and presumably considerable funding) from its successful women’s and men’s basketball teams and is now striving to rebuild its football program. UConn in the past has been investigated by the NCAA for alleged recruiting violations, and the dismal academic performance of its male basketball players led to a temporary disqualification of the men’s team from the NCAA national tournament.

It has also recently gone through the turmoil of changing leagues, with a major consideration being TV money (not a favorable prospect for UConn, which is located in a relatively small media area). The university’s new athletic director, Warde Manuel, should be well-equipped to effectively govern and expand the university’s sports programs. There is no question but that UConn “should play this game,” provided that it establishes and then follows the most rigorous ethical and legal standards.

One significant issue for the UConn Foundation is whether it will continue to enjoy exemption from the state Freedom of Information Act insofar as its fundraising efforts and disbursements are concerned. The foundation does not wish to disclose details regarding donors (even though a portion of its revenue apparently is used to compensate the UConn president), and argues that numerous checks and balances in place ensure compliance with all applicable laws, and also that many major donors do not wish publicity.

The matter is being debated in the current session of the General Assembly; the foundation opposes a bill which would remove its FOIA exemption. Under current circumstances (as advocated in a recent column in the UConn student newspaper), the foundation’s exemption under the FOIA should be terminated. •