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OUR OPINION: For Writer's Conference, endowment may hold key

Some years ago, the political science faculty at Notre Dame had the idea of combining two of the university's strengths -- religion and politics -- into a stand-alone program. But ideas are one thing, and money is another.

Our Opinion

Some years ago, the political science faculty at Notre Dame had the idea of combining two of the university's strengths -- religion and politics -- into a stand-alone program. But ideas are one thing, and money is another.

So, how to pay for the program, which is now called the Tocqueville Program for Inquiry into Religion and American Public Life?

The faculty's answer: an endowment, which not only would pay many of the bills but also anchor the program in a bedrock of permanence, stability and prestige.

Initial funding came "several years ago in the form of a $1 million National Endowment for the Humanities challenge grant," the Tocqueville Program's website notes.

"Awarded through the NEH's 'We the People' initiative, the grant required Notre Dame to raise an additional $3 million for the program's endowment, all of which is now in place."

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The program and its faculty have provided "a forum for scholarly discourse" ever since.

Today, the UND Writers Conference faces a "funding challenge," Herald staff writer Chuck Haga reported this week. "It now costs between $70,000 and $100,000 a year to bring nationally and internationally known writers to campus for a weeklong series of readings and panel discussions. ... (and) the conference may not be able to count on continuing major support from the university or such outside sources as the National Endowment of the Arts."

Here's hoping that as the conference's organizers think about fundraising plans, they consider a campaign to dramatically grow the conference's endowment.

The fund may never get big enough to pay all of the conference's bills. But it probably could pay a big share; and at UND, the time is right to give the fundraising effort a try.

That's because the Writer's Conference already boasts several very real strengths.

The first and most important is the conference's sterling reputation. Since 1970, the conference not only has brought some of America's most distinguished writers to UND, but also made the writers' readings and workshops available to the public for free.

That's extraordinary: "Most conferences of our stature require heavy registration fees and are thus limited to those who can afford such a luxury," as the conference's website notes.

Simply put, donors at all levels are drawn to events of such integrity and quality.

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Second, North Dakota, for the first time in its history, is rich. This year alone, the Legislature and governor agreed to not only expand the UND Law School but also build an entirely new medical school.

Could North Dakota find the means to, say, offer a generous matching-grant program to help build the conference's endowment?

Third, the answer to that question may be yes, because the state already has such a program. It's called the North Dakota Higher Education Challenge, it was another product of the 2013 Legislature, and it will provide $1 in matching grants for every $2 raised by the colleges and universities' institutional foundations "for projects dedicated exclusively to the advancement of academics."

Would the Writer's Conference qualify? If the conference's organizers haven't done so already, they might want to find out.

The conference is a much-anticipated event that adds enormously to UND and has done so for decades. Now, its future is in question -- and it deserves a permanent funding source that will answer that question once and for all.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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