EASTON, Pa. — There’s a lot that Lafayette College president Alison R. Byerly will do to raise money for financial aid for students.
One year, the English scholar, clad in a black business suit, cannonballed into the college swimming pool. Another, she dressed like college namesake Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat and military leader also cast as the fastest rapping character in Hamilton, and performed a lip sync. And another, she donned a baseball jersey and battled Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon, an alumnus, in a pitch, hit, and run contest.
“Well, I’m sorry, Joe," Byerly quipped on a video clip of the contest. "It is called the President’s Challenge. I get to win.”
Actually, it’s the financial-aid budget that wins. Since Byerly began “the President’s Challenge,” an ongoing fund-raising effort highlighted annually by a one-day push, the small liberal arts college has increased the money it raises for aid, from $7 million annually to $12 million, which is about 30% of Lafayette’s annual fund-raising. The one-day push has drawn nearly $3.6 million over the last three years.
Each year, the Lehigh Valley college releases humorous video clips of Byerly and her latest challenge, leading up to the one-day fund-raising push, held March 9, the day Lafayette was founded.
“It’s something that feels mildly embarrassing to do," Byerly said, “and that’s kind of the point, that people realize you’re willing to put yourself out there and then that suggests that you think it’s really important.”
Many colleges conduct a one-day fund-raising push to attract new donors and galvanize alumni around a moment in time.
Villanova University raised $4.1 million from nearly 7,000 donors during its third annual giving day in September, called “1842 Day” for the year the school was founded, said spokesperson Jonathan Gust. One Villanova family pledged $1.5 million for efforts around disability services on campus for students. Drexel University will run its fifth annual giving day in May; last year, the school raised $940,669, said Niki Gianakaris, a spokesperson.
Lafayette, which has an enrollment of 2,633 and an endowment of $866 million, stirs competition online among alumni and campus groups.
“A day of giving creates urgency and also brings the community together in supporting an initiative in a really powerful way,” said Kimberly Spang, vice president for development.
Byerly, who became president in 2013, launched the President’s Challenge four years ago as she became concerned that Lafayette was not financially accessible to increasing numbers of qualified students. Costs are rising as the school maintains a 10-1 student-faculty ratio, compensation and benefit packages to attract and retain top scholars, and competitive facilities and research capabilities. The college set the goal of doubling financial aid and growing the student body by 16% to 2,900, based on the 2013 numbers. Next year, Lafayette will charge nearly $74,000 in tuition, fees, and room and board.
“We’re getting expensive and people aren’t getting richer as fast as we’re getting expensive,” said Byerly, a Glenside native who got her bachelor’s at Wellesley and master’s and doctorate at Penn.
Since the President’s Challenge began, Lafayette has attracted more younger donors. In 2016-17, 26% of donors who graduated within the previous five years gave. By 2018-19, it had risen to 30%. The percentage of donors out for six to 10 years also increased by slightly more than a percentage point.
Lafayette officials think Byerly’s spirited challenges have helped attract younger donors. Alumni and parents, who said they recognized Byerly from the videos, have approached her in the Chicago airport, New York City, and San Francisco.
“If it’s interesting enough, people will pay attention,” she said.
The pool diving stunt was against a student diver.
“I had to think carefully about what suit do I not mind getting covered with chlorine, and you only get one take so you better get it right,” she said.
For the Hamilton lip sync, the college scored her a costume on Amazon.
“I had to stitch it together in the back to make it fit,” she said. Professors performed lip syncs, too.
The funny videos are supplemented with factual ones about financial aid.
This year, college officials decided to try something different — their version of the game show Hollywood Squares. They called it Lafayette Squares.
Byerly sat in the center square, with professors and other administrators around her. Two sophomores competed, and the contest was emceed by Robert Sell, chairman of the board of trustees. Sell, a Nazareth native and 1984 alumnus, really got into his role, wearing a 1970s-style wig and leopard jacket. (Lafayette’s mascot is the leopard.)
“Alison,” Sell said during round one, “who said, ‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times'?"
Byerly deadpanned: “That was Lehigh president John Simon in the last minute of the Lafayette-Lehigh rivalry game." (Lafayette won in the final minute.)
So it went, with joke answers and real ones. Student contestants caught on quickly, especially considering neither knew of Hollywood Squares. The original version show, in which contestants compete in a game of tic-tac-toe with celebrities filling the squares, ended in 1981, long before either was born.
“I watched a YouTube video,” said sophomore Gina Beviglia, 20, Scranton.
Her competitor, Michael Anekwe, 20, an economics and government and law major from Nigeria, swept the match. Both were excited to participate. They said they receive generous financial aid from Lafayette.
“Everyone knows the cost of college … is rising at an exponential rate,” said Beviglia, an English and philosophy major, “and it’s getting to the point that how is anyone going to be able to afford a college education. The administration and President Byerly understand that.”
Lauren Anderson, a chemical and biomolecular engineering professor and 2004 alumna, said the financial aid she received from Lafayette was critical. She participated in the game to help raise money for future students.
She likes Byerly’s fund-raising escapades.
“She demonstrates that she is all in to Lafayette,” Anderson said.