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Amid Tension, UT-Austin Touts Fundraising Numbers

As tensions remain between the University of Texas at Austin leadership and the University of Texas System, the university focused on the positive Thursday when it announced that it had broken its single-year fundraising record.

UT President Bill Powers does the "Hook-em 'Horns" with student Lariza Uribe at the Texas Capitol on Mar. 5, 2013.

With tensions on the rise between University of Texas at Austin administrators and the University of Texas System heading into the Board of Regents' Aug. 21 meeting, the university is highlighting the positive by announcing it has broken its single-year fundraising record.

On Thursday, the university said that it has raised $396 million in the current fiscal year, and UT-Austin President Bill Powers told the Tribune he was confident that the university would eclipse the $400 million mark by the end of the month, when the fiscal year ends.

He declined to discuss a recent dispute over the university's cancellation of a regent's request for records or speculate about the upcoming board meeting, before which his job performance — along with the performances of the system's other university presidents — will be evaluated.

"We're just going to enjoy what we think is very good news that, a month early, we have already set a record here in fundraising," Powers said.

The two largest gifts of the year were $50 million from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation to fund a medical school and $25 million from Terry and Robert Rowling for a new graduate education building at the business school. But the university indicated that the vast majority of donations were gifts of under $1,000.

"The one thing they all have in common is they love this university," Powers said. "They understand the importance of this university to the state and the country."

Praise for the figures also came from the UT system. In a statement, Randa Safady, the system’s vice chancellor for external relations, said, "Nothing speaks louder to the confidence in UT-Austin than the generosity of a broad philanthropic community. Bravo and congratulations on a remarkable, record year."

The university's fundraising has at times been a part of the ongoing strain with the board of regents, and the way in which Thursday's news was rolled out recalls some of the points of contention.

The news release announcing the fundraising totals prominently includes a quote from John Lippincott, the president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, an international organization that monitors and sets standards for fundraising reporting. In it, he called UT-Austin's numbers a "remarkable achievement."

A comment from CASE is not without significance. In 2012, UT-Austin had a disagreement with CASE over whether they should be allowed to report in-kind software donations in their fundraising totals. The university believed it should, but CASE disagreed.

In a rare move, Regent Wallace Hall, whose investigative approach to the job has made him a controversial figure, flew to Washington, D.C., to participate in a meeting about the issue. He sided with CASE and against the university, which ultimately had to remove more than $200 million from its 2012 fundraising total.

In a June 2013 interview with the Tribune, Hall said of his interest in the matter, "The issue was significant. Claiming $200 million dollars in charitable gifts that didn't exist is not appropriate."

In a February board meeting, Hall pressed Powers on the structure of the university's development office. He asked why the president had not hired a vice president of development despite being instructed to by the board.

Powers said that no in-kind software donations were included in the totals announced Thursday.

Lippincott said the high fundraising totals put UT-Austin in an elite class. "Most important," he said in his statement, "the significant growth in philanthropic investment in UT-Austin signals tremendous support among donors for the mission, the quality and the direction of the institutions."

"It's always nice to get kudos from the national group," Powers said. "CASE is in a position to know who is out raising money."

Powers said that raising an average of more than $1 million per day was "a testament to the people who have been doing fundraising on campus."

He demurred when asked what effect the ongoing tensions between the university and the regents might have had on the totals, saying that everyone's reason for giving was different.

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