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Saturday, April 13, 2024

UF dignitaries were all smiles Friday night as they mingled at a ritzy gala with university benefactors, some of whom have given more than ,1 million.

Showing off their finest cocktail wear, leaders like UF President Bernie Machen thanked donors for their gifts but said more money is needed.

A billion dollars more, to be exact.

Amid glowing tabletops and well-stocked bars, UF leaders converged at the O'Connell Center for a soiree designed to charm the university's biggest donors.

The swanky party marked the official unveiling of the largest fundraising campaign in UF's history, titled Florida Tomorrow. By 2012, UF hopes to have raked in ,1.5 billion through the drive - ,300 million more than initially announced.

"That's a big number, but we have big dreams," Machen said in a speech to attendees Friday.

Although fundraising for the effort has already been underway for about two years, Friday's program represented the kickoff of the campaign's "public phase." Since 2005, half a billion dollars has been raised.

To celebrate the occasion, UF gave the O'Connell Center a Space Mountain makeover, covering it in black fabric and futuristic decorations to enhance the evening's theme, "Voyage to Tomorrow."

The thousand or so guests sat around tables glowing in soothing hues of red and blue, while servers delivered plates of seared beef tenderloin and chocolate mousse.

Chris Brazda, a spokesman for the UF Foundation, the university's fundraising arm, said he didn't have an estimate of the evening's price tag because it was part of a full weekend of events.

However, he added, most of the costs were underwritten with private contributions.

A fat white program booklet listed the event's sponsors as ABC Fine Wine and Spirits, Bacardi USA and Louise H. Courtelis, volunteer chair for the campaign kickoff.

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In addition to donors, some UF faculty members and alumni were asked to join in the festivities.

"I'm shocked to be invited," joked author Carl Hiaasen, a UF alumnus attending the event. "I thought there was a mistake when I got the invitation."

JumboTrons overhead projected the names of some of the university's biggest givers, including Bob Graham, the former Florida governor and senator, and Carolyn Roberts, chairwoman of the Board of Governors.

But Friday night was about more than honoring past donations.

In an effort to motivate additional gifts at the event, slick videos highlighting the university's foundations - students, faculty and research - were played to demonstrate the benefits of giving. Between meal courses, the JumboTrons showed footage of students, faculty members, Gators coaches and other people discussing their dreams for the university and the state.

Campaign leaders addressed the crowd too, speaking from a small stage at the center of the arena to emphasize the rising demands UF faces.

"It takes money - a lot of money - to attract and reward world-class professors," said Beth McCague, a co-chair of the campaign's steering council.

UF plans to funnel the money earned through the campaign toward faculty, research, students and facilities.

The fundraiser will not, however, be publicized as a means to make up for the massive budget cuts UF is facing due to a slump in state tax revenue.

Instead, Florida Tomorrow is focused on the university's long-term plans for amplifying its role in the state and asserting itself nationally as a top research institution.

The campaign "really is the embodiment of our fondest hopes," Machen said in a speech Friday.

As donors, faculty and alumni looked on, the president announced that a ,10 million gift had been made by an anonymous donor that very day, meaning Florida Tomorrow's coffers now hold ,512 million.

The crowd applauded as Machen stared out into the sea of faces.

"Thank you all for being here tonight," he said. "Thanks for loving this great university."

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