Questions about the health of its current capital campaign have sharpened since last month, when fundraising director Steve Gamer stepped down in a move that has yet to be fully explained. His hiring was touted as a central step in the university's efforts to greatly expand giving from philanthropists and other contributors, but he left after just two years.
In recent weeks, campus officials have issued conflicting or incomplete statements about when the campaign started, when it will end and how the money will be spent.
Chancellor Pradeep Khosla tried to bring clarity during an interview Thursday, saying the school is nearing the midpoint of a campaign to help underwrite the addition of 6,000 students and two or three new colleges on the La Jolla campus.
The goals include securing $250 million for scholarships, $250 million for endowed chairs, at least $400 million for the endowment and millions more for buildings, possibly including on-campus condos for faculty.
Khosla expressed optimism in part because the campus is about to surpass its annual fundraising record of $177.5 million, set last year. The mark could reach $190 million by the time the fiscal year ends June 30.
A one-year sum of $190 million is a lot for UC San Diego but not for other well-known institutions of higher learning in California. Last year, for example, Stanford raised about $1.6 billion — the highest amount in the country — while UC San Francisco generated nearly $609 million.
Khosla, who was hired as chancellor in 2012 partly based on his fundraising skills, indicated that UC San Diego might be able to climb into the $300-million-to-$400-million annual range.
Major capital campaigns are conducted in two phases. Schools start by quietly ramping up their fundraising and refining their goals. Then they announce the campaign publicly and try to increasingly build momentum. Such campaigns typically last five to seven years.
UC San Diego's first capital campaign raised $1 billion during a seven-year period that ended in 2007.
The university intended to go public with its second campaign in November, but Gamer's departure is expected to delay that milestone until early or mid-2017.
Khosla said the setback won't undermine the campaign's primary objectives, particularly its efforts to better connect with its 168,000 alumni.
Less than 5% of the private donations UC San Diego secured last year came from alumni. The average for colleges nationwide was 28.3%.
The disparity reflects a fact that Khosla and other campus leaders acknowledge: UC San Diego has largely overlooked alumni during the bulk of its 55-year history, believing the state would provide most of the money it needs.
That attitude began changing in recent years as state support for the University of California system plummeted. In 2001, the state provided 23% of the system's revenue. By 2013, the figure had plunged to 10%.
Though the funding situation has improved since then, the toll on students has been deep: In the last decade, tuition and fees at UC San Diego have more than doubled, surpassing $13,000 per year.
During the same period, enrollment has soared by almost 8,000 — to nearly 34,000.
All the while, UC San Diego has developed into one of the nation's 10 largest research universities, raising about $1 billion a year for research. That's a source of pride, but there's also growing concern that the school has emphasized research at the expense of student life.
"We built our [research] reputation really fast," Khosla said. "It's like an aggressive, career-oriented person who in the process of achieving something forgot that he had a family. So when he has wealth and fame, the kids are not connected back to him or her.
"Now we are focusing on education, scholarship and access for the underprivileged, on [getting] more student advisors."
There's also a bid to cultivate emotional attachment to the campus by making the university and its surrounding community livelier places to live and study.
The university is drafting plans for Gateway, a building complex that would provide it with a clearly defined front entrance. The complex is meant to be a widely recognized feature, much like Harvard Yard or Sather Gate at UC Berkeley. The San Diego trolley system is scheduled to stop at Gateway, another element meant to turn the site into the university's social hub.
Such improvements would be welcomed by Slade Fischer of San Diego, who graduated from UC San Diego in 2006.
"A degree from UCSD carries a lot of weight," said Fischer, who majored in urban studies and planning. "It's a difficult and challenging school, but it doesn't foster the college experience. Nobody wants to stay on campus. It's like an island up there."
Some change is bound to occur: The university plans to add housing space for 10,000 students, much of it within the next five years.
But Khosla faces many challenges as he tries to implement these changes. The chancellor said the current capital campaign is understaffed.
In addition, the university has suffered from a weak alumni outreach program. In a recent report commissioned by UC San Diego, the consulting firm Bentz Whaley Flessner said more than 550,000 potential donors — everyone from alumni to corporations to foundations — have little or no connection to UC San Diego.
That's worrisome, because historically nearly 80% of the university's private gifts have come from donors with significant ties to the university.
The university also needs more "big fish" donors — people who can make transformative gifts. This might be achieved by selling naming rights to its schools, buildings and departments.
For instance, naming rights for the medical school can be bought for about $250 million.
"Everything that we have is capable of being named," Khosla said.