International alumni are filling universities' coffers
by Diane Smith
Is today's international student tomorrow's donor?
Businessman Mustaque Ahmed's home country is Bangladesh, but philanthropy ties him to the University of Texas at Arlington, where he invests in students.
Ahmed, who graduated with the Class of '81, believes in giving back. In 2010, he gave the university $145,000 in gifts through its dollar-for-dollar Maverick Match program -- $125,000 went to create the Festival of Ideas Global Research Institute. He is also managing director of UTA's 2011-12 development board.
Ahmed's desire to see UTA move from a commuter school to a campus of first choice echoes that of university leaders, but it's his long-held personal mission.
"A lot needs to be done at UTA; that's why I support UTA," Ahmed said in a recent telephone interview from Bangladesh, adding that he would like his alma mater to become a center for global ideas.
Ahmed and a growing number of other international alumni are helping the American universities where they earned degrees. They are donating as U.S. universities compete for the brightest students, modernize facilities and step up research amid cuts in higher-education funding. Experts say unique ties have emerged so that international alumni are not just giving money -- they are promoting good will between nations and helping recruit students through word of mouth.
University of North Texas alumnus and entrepreneur Charn Uswachoke of Thailand gave the school its largest gift ever: $22 million to support music, engineering and business. At the University of Texas at Dallas, industrialist Naveen Jindal of India was a partner in a $30 million gift aimed at supporting endowed chairs and fellowships. The university's School of Management was named in his honor -- Jindal earned a Master of Business Administration there in 1992.
At Arkansas State University, the international community has not only donated, but has also helped build a strong rugby program.
"We had one South African come over; he went back and told his friends," said Cristian Murdock, vice chancellor for university advancement.
Hasan Pirkul, dean of the Naveen Jindal School of Management at UT Dallas, said: "People often do not appreciate the impact of international students on the United States. We are growing friends of the United States."
The trend raises the question: Do universities lose some autonomy when they take gifts from donors who live overseas?
That question is another side of a recent issue raised in a New York Times report about how University of Washington officials have said international students help subsidize financial aid for low-income students because they pay higher tuition.
Some experts said higher out-of-state tuition and international alumni's gifts are helping during lean times.
"This is no-strings-attached money coming back to us and it is helping us educate our kids in Texas," Pirkul said. "The key is money with no strings attached. It's true philanthropy."
Murdock said universities must always scrutinize domestic and international donors so as not to open themselves to criticism. All gifts ultimately have to be approved by the boards of trustees or regents.
"I see the future of international giving growing," Murdock said, adding that with states reducing funding and private schools growing more hesitant to raise tuition continually, universities are "looking under every stone."
Lisa Baronio, UNT's vice president for advancement, said reaching out to international alumni is relatively new there.
"The biggest challenge is trying to keep track of your international alumni," Baronio said, adding that some universities assign a lifetime e-mail address while students are still enrolled.
The idea is not to replace state support but to boost donations, she said.
"We want to be able to provide the best education possible for our students in the state of Texas," Baronio said.
UNT alum Uswachoke sees himself as an ambassador with sentimental ties to Denton. He earned an MBA from UNT in 1973.
Uswachoke said the world is becoming more globalized, with standards of living improving in Asia. Students there want a better education, so they turn to America.
"The U.S. has the best education system, especially in higher education," Uswachoke said. "Most U.S. universities need more funding from the outside."
He said international alumni serve as a link for students overseas searching for a campus with the right fit.
The number of international students in America has been growing for a decade. A record 723,277 were enrolled nationwide in the 2010-11 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education. China, India and South Korea sent the most that year.
"China's growing middle class has the ability to send their students anywhere in the world for their education and the United States is the destination of choice," said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the New York-based Institute of International Education.
Blumenthal said that formerly, most Chinese students in the U.S. were graduate students, but the number of undergraduates is growing. The U.S. undergraduate model, which includes liberal arts and analytical thinking, is highly admired, she said.
Pirkul said gifts from international alumni show that the U.S. is making more global friends and building relationships that help trade, investment and diplomacy.
The gifts are also a sign that the American culture of philanthropy has been imprinted on international alumni who come from countries where college donations aren't the norm, he said.
"Their success is really our success," Pirkul said.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675