Crowdfunding Penn in 1925

Written by Cory Austin Knudson

By 1925, the University of Pennsylvania comprised some 8,000 full-time students from every state in the U.S. and 40 foreign countries, as well as an additional 7,000 part-time students. Penn’s three hospitals treated more than 150,000 patients and its dental school treated 14,000 others. Fourth in enrollment and size of faculty among U.S. universities, Penn had been growing for almost two centuries. Also growing—disconcertingly so—were the University’s financial needs.

Despite its size and prestige, in 1925 Penn ranked 21st in its amount of productive endowment. Professors’ salaries had stagnated and the university was having trouble attracting new, dynamic teachers and researchers. Penn’s facilities, many of which were originally built with a much smaller student population in mind, were also starting to fall apart. Its scientific departments, in particular, lacked the space and resources to accommodate new equipment, not to mention the additional workers and laboratory assistants needed to maintain the university’s standing as a leader in scientific innovation. Though sixth in size among U.S. university libraries, the Penn University Library was 14th in amount of annual appropriation. For years, diligence and duct tape made up the difference between what Penn needed and what it could pay for—but on October 27th, 1924, the Board of Trustees of the University approved the establishment of an organization called The University of Pennsylvania Fund, whose explicit directive was to “solve the financial problems of the university” (“What Should I Give?” p. 3, Box 1 Folder 4).

The University of Pennsylvania Fund might remind contemporary readers of a crowdfunding campaign. A novel idea for its time, the University effectively shifted its primary fundraising focus from wealthy patrons, few and far between as they were, to its then 40,000-strong alumni in order to support the continued operation and evolution of their alma mater. As the Fund’s managing committee wrote, “From the Alumni and through the Alumni must come in greatest measure the support which is so essential to well-being. Fortunately, many friends of education have been brought into a sympathetic relation with the University through the devotion and enthusiasm of our Alumni, whose response in this undertaking will undoubtedly stimulate wide public support” (The University of Pennsylvania: Past, Present, and Future p. 8, Box 1 Folder 7).

Print Coll. 64 The University of Pennsylvania Fund publicity material documents the first two years of the Fund, showing just how much it was able to accomplish even in its infancy. Its first task was to formulate a program of policy and needs, which determined that the University would need to raise $45,650,000 over the next 15 years in order to achieve its aims. These included establishing a women’s college, updating existing buildings, hiring new faculty, and expanding the university’s facilities.

from The University of Pennsylvania: Past, Present, and Future p. 15, Box 1 Folder 7

After the needs of the University were determined and circulated, the Fund set about organizing a veritable army of volunteers called “Class Committeemen” and “Class Workers” who would set about the legwork of raising the much-needed funds. These committeemen and workers would meet for regular luncheons to discuss progress and strategize, and their meetings would often feature alumni speakers and performances of the University Orchestra and Glee Club, as shown in the example below of the Fund’s circular, “The Pennsylvania Flyer.”

Flyer from Box 1 Folder 1
“The Pennsylvania Flyer” no. 8, Box 1 Folder 1

Far from all fun and games, the Fund was a proverbially well-oiled machine, and its volunteers clearly took their task very seriously. The funding drive officially began on May 1st, 1925, and in a month the class committeemen and workers had raised nearly three and a half million dollars.

Box 1 Folder 1

The “subscriptions” referred to here presumably refer to subscriptions to the Fund News, a weekly paper that kept alumni donors apprised of the progress of the Fund and general news about the university.

One copy of the Fund News shows the mercifully defunct Penn tradition of “Frog-Ponding” sophomores. I have been unable to find what the “Annual Pants Fight” was, but for some reason the name terrifies me.

Print Coll. 64 is not a large collection, and indeed only contains limited informational and promotional material relating to the University of Pennsylvania Fund’s fundraising effort during its first two years. But the collection’s size actually underscores the intensity of the effort volunteers for the Fund put in over such a short amount of time. One of the last copies of the Fund News included in this collection, printed just two months after the beginning of the fundraising drive, announces that the Fund had passed the $5,000,000 mark. Hurrah Pennsylvania indeed.

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