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Op-Ed: In a tough economy, philanthropy is crucial

By Robert L. Bowen


Any savvy investor knows good opportunities exist even in a bear market; you just have to know where to look. But the stock market isn’t the only place to hunt for them, nor is it necessarily the best place. As a long-term investment, the wisest choice is often not a financial product – it’s people.

Last March, this newspaper ran a special section on Indiana’s "state of decline." Some of its figures painted a grim picture indeed: Between 2000 and 2002, Indiana lost more jobs than any other state, losing seven times the national average in manufacturing jobs and twice the national average overall.

People are Indiana’s greatest asset, and the weapons we can arm them with to succeed in the job market are knowledge and skills. The most effective way to do that on a large scale is through Indiana’s institutions of higher education – Purdue, Notre Dame, Indiana University, and a host of other schools.

The way to help Indiana’s institutions accomplish this task is to roll up our sleeves and contribute. It’s difficult in times like this, but waiting will only slow us down further, making it that much harder to get going again. A recent New York Times article documented that every state in the nation is currently suffering a budget crunch, forcing cutbacks to most public universities. Now is our chance to move forward.

And that’s just what donors to Purdue’s $1.3 billion campaign have in mind. With their support, the Campaign for Purdue is slightly more than half way home. Supported by these donors and a state that is doing its best to stay the course in its support of higher education, Purdue is moving ahead with its strategic plan to provide a world-class, affordable education for Hoosiers and help grow the Indiana economy.

Just a few examples of that success: The campaign to raise $200 million more money for scholarships has brought in over $88 million. This fall the university will break ground, celebrate and dedicated more than 11 buildings costing more than $140 million, the vast majority targeted to education or research to support Indiana.

Providing facilities and scholarships, though, is not enough. We also must ensure that Hoosier students are prepared to take advantage of higher education when they arrive. For example, with the help of private donors, Purdue’s ScienceBound program aims to broaden disadvantaged high school students’ exposure to the sciences to inspire and prepare them to pursue a science-related field. And once these students are enrolled, the contributions cover their tuition.

Not everyone has the financial wherewithal to contribute on the million-dollar scale, but investment takes place on many levels. Parents and schools in local communities should ensure that students are taking the "Core 40" curriculum of college preparatory courses. Whether graduates go on to college immediately or not, these courses will prime them for the kind of work that can lift Indiana from its rut.

Those of you who do have the ability to invest on a larger scale, I encourage you to contribute to the institution of your choice. Mine is Purdue University. It is not immune from the budget difficulties plaguing our state and nation. Less than a generation ago, Purdue received 70 percent of its operating costs from state funding with the remainder coming from tuition; now, only 45 percent comes from the state. Our private gifts, then, clearly are crucial to institutions and the state they support.

Like all long-term investments, philanthropy will take time to show a profit. But my Purdue experience was an irreplaceable part of my own success in business, and the business career it began now is allowing me to give that opportunity to many other young people. My contributions today show my belief in the best hope for Indiana's future, our young minds.

If we support our institutions, together we could help position our state to be at the leading edge of the 21st century economy, rather than at the trailing edge of the 20th.

Robert Bowen, of Indianapolis, is the founder of Bowen Engineering Corp. in Fishers, Ind