The Utah Legislature has increased its funding to the University of Utah nearly every year for the past five. But the U. wants to do more research, offer more scholarships, fund more construction and, ultimately, be more competitive nationwide.

So the school has launched the public phase of its newest fundraising campaign to collect an extra $2 billion from alumni and corporations.

“It’s the margin of excellence that allows you to do things that you cannot do with state funds alone,” said Fred Esplin, vice president for institutional advancement at the U.

The “Imagine New Heights” capital campaign — which started quietly in July 2014 and was announced publicly on Friday after the school inaugurated Ruth Watkins as its new president — has in the past four years netted $1 billion. In the next four years, the U. intends to double that.

If it meets its goal, it would be the biggest fundraising drive in the history of the state’s flagship institution. The previous campaign, “Together We Reach,” netted $1.65 billion over nine years, ending in 2014. The only two before that, in the 1980s and 1990s, raised a combined total of $935 million.

Funding from the state, Esplin said, is combined with tuition payments to cover mostly professor salaries and building operation costs. Last year, the U. received $651 million from the Legislature. The year before, it got $593 million. Undergraduate annual tuition at the U. for the 2013-14 school year was $6,511; it is $7,697 for the current year.

But, even with those increases, the funding can’t cover all the “extras” that a university offers, such as football and theater programs. Private money supports those things.

So far in the “Imagine New Heights” campaign, $240 million has come in from individuals (half from alumni), $376 million from foundations, $246 million from corporations and $246 million from public organizations. Almost 80,000 distinct donors and businesses have contributed.

Most of the donations are earmarked by the donor to go to specific projects or scholarships — so the university couldn’t, for instance, use the funding to cover tuition for all of its undergraduates, Esplin said. The biggest share of the already collected funds, roughly $287 million, is going to research, where two-thirds will be used for medical studies and analyses.

“It’s great community support that makes us far better than we would be without it,” said Chris Nelson, spokesman for the U.

Already, the donations have gone toward an institute for economics and quantitative analysis, a rehabilitation hospital and a planned medical education building. But unlike the last campaign — which helped fund more than 37 construction and renovation projects — this one is less building-focused and more centered on students and staff.

Of the money collected up to last week, $98 million has been designated for scholarships and fellowships and $145 million for academic programs, such as endowed chairs, meant to recruit and retain talented professors. Part of that too, is keeping pace and competing with other Pac-12 schools.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“Absolutely, absolutely,” Esplin said. “You want to attract the best students and the best faculty.”

“But states just can’t do it all on their own. … The private gifts allow you to do things you otherwise couldn’t do.”