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Donor hunt can backfire

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By Todd Cohen

In its chase for big bucks, Duke University risks hurting the academic excellence that draws donors in the first place.

Donors back Duke, which hauled in $2 billion in its recent capital campaign, because it offers one of the top academic programs in the U.S.

But in its zeal for dollars, Duke has lowered admissions standards for kids with rich parents, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Duke’s payoff, the Journal says, was to raise more unrestricted dollars from non-alumni for its annual fund over the past six years than any other U.S. college or university.

But donors could sour on Duke if it gives them the idea it will sacrifice academic standards for cash.

Rather than come clean about their aggressive strategy, Duke officials hedge about why the school cuts deals for rich kids.

Duke President Nan Keohane told the Journal the practice was “certainly not a policy directive, or even a conscious choice.”

She even touted Duke’s “development admissions” in calling for the Supreme Court to uphold the University of Michigan’s affirmative-action plan.

“The two are definitely linked,” she told the Journal, noting that Duke’s development admissions favor whites, “and it seems odd to me to allow one sort of preference but not the other.”

What is truly odd is that Duke would peddle its wares to wealthy prospects, and confuse that merchandising of admissions with well-meaning efforts to serve truly motivated and hard-working kids who, because of race, have faced giant hurdles in their schooling.

Rather than greasing the wheels for their kids, Duke can best serve wealthy donors by plugging them into its work so they can better understand its needs and help strengthen its programs.

In the wake of the botched heart-and-lung transplant operation at its medical center that is sure to cost it millions of dollars in malpractice payments, Duke’s fundraising focus should be to connect with donors who want to support the school because of its excellence and integrity, not because it panders to them.

That’s a good goal for all charities.

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