A conversation with Scott Nichols
After 20 years as Harvard Law School’s associate dean for development, Scott Nichols concluded his service on April 30 to become vice president for development and alumni relations at Boston University.
During his tenure, the school raised more than $500 million to support all aspects of its teaching and research activities. He led two comprehensive drives: “The Campaign for Harvard Law School” in the early 1990s and the current “Setting the Standard” campaign, which has a goal of $400 million and—with over $280 million already raised—is more than two-thirds complete.
Your fundraising for HLS over 20 years has brought in more than $500 million, which is more than anyone else in legal education has raised. What’s the recipe for that success?
Easy. Take a great institution with highly successful alumni. Add big ambitions, mix with great leadership and solicit vigorously.
How did you decide to get into development?
My first attempt to save the world was as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. University salaries looked pretty appealing after that. Actually, I was headed to law school but was seduced into believing I could make a better world through philanthropy instead.
Were there experiences in your own education that were especially influential in setting you on your path?
As a senior at Bucknell, I was asked to head up the senior gift drive. It was fun, productive and seemed valuable to the university. It opened my eyes to the importance of educational institutions and the crucial role that philanthropy plays.
Your job has involved lots of travel to meet with HLS supporters around the world. Which trip stands out the most?
Two trips do—the first, official international trips of Bob Clark and of Elena Kagan. Experiencing the worldwide impact of HLS is amazing for anyone but especially a new dean.
What are the most satisfying moments you’ve had here?
There are so many that made the job a privilege every day. No moment was finer than when the faculty threw a party for the Alumni Center staff in 1995 to express their appreciation for the successful campaign just concluded. Fundraising is a team sport. Having fabulous, grateful faculty and superior colleagues recognize each other was very special.
What do you say to people who think the law school’s endowment is so large that the school doesn’t need their support?
It’s only large by comparison with others. Until the day we don’t have to charge tuition, when we know that all scholarship needs are met, when we run out of new ideas for improving the school, when knowledge stops growing and buildings last forever, we will have to continue fundraising. In the words of Henry Rosovsky, “quality costs.” Harvard Law School can ill afford to provide anything that doesn’t aspire to the highest quality. Whether it’s the library, financial aid, professorships, computers, classrooms or many other things, the harsh reality is that it costs a fortune to run a top-flight program. Archie Cox used to say that we are always seeking the “unattainable better.” And that means additional resources are always needed.
What’s at stake in the current capital drive, “Setting the Standard”?
In addition to improving HLS for the current and next generations, we are also raising the bar for many other law schools which have launched their own campaigns that have raised nearly $2 billion in gifts. The quality of legal education all around has risen dramatically. The “rising tide” impact is most often overlooked.
From a development perspective, what are the biggest challenges facing universities in the next few years?
The biggest challenge will be investing for the long term by integrating alumni more meaningfully in the life of the school. I see too many places that are willing to do so for a few years during a campaign but then flag in investing for a lifetime relationship. Thank goodness I’ve had the privilege of working for a place that has understood the difference.