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Mary Ruth Carleton currently serves as SDSU's vice president for University Relations and Development and the president and CEO of the Campanile Foundation. (Photo: diFranco Photography) Mary Ruth Carleton currently serves as SDSU's vice president for University Relations and Development and the president and CEO of the Campanile Foundation. (Photo: diFranco Photography)

Campaign Strategist

For the architect of The Campaign for SDSU, success was the only possible outcome.
By Tobin Vaughn

This story appears in the spring 2017 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

To many Aztecs, The Campaign for SDSU’s original goal seemed improbable: Raise half a billion dollars?! Yet there was never a doubt in her mind.

Mary Ruth Carleton has spent much of her life beating challenges and exceeding expectations. In leading the university’s first comprehensive campaign, she is the architect of a fundraising feat unmatched by any other California State University (CSU) institution.  

“It was an audacious goal in the first place, and it was conducted during the worst recession since the Great Depression,” recalled Stephen L. Weber, SDSU’s president during the campaign’s “silent phase,” beginning in 2007. “It is an extraordinary thing to have accomplished.”

Spring 2017 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University
Fall 2017 Cover of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University
In Carleton, SDSU found an extraordinary leader. She currently serves as San Diego State University’s vice president for University Relations and Development and the president and CEO of the Campanile Foundation (TCF), the university’s fundraising auxiliary.

“Her role has been absolutely essential,” assessed SDSU President Elliot Hirshman. “At every turn she has been the person thinking strategically about next steps and trying to determine what was best for San Diego State.”

Having transitioned from an impressive career as an Emmy-winning television journalist into higher education development work, Carleton came to SDSU in 1994 as the first director of development for the College of Health and Human Services. She soon grew frustrated by a community that failed to see why state-funded institutions require philanthropic support.

“There just wasn’t a culture of philanthropy,” she recalled.

Uncommon energy

Recruited away by Scripps Health, Carleton tried fundraising in the medical field. But she soon returned to higher education as a vice president for a small Bay Area college, and then as an associate vice president at the University of San Francisco, where she helped lead a large fundraising campaign. Carleton liked the feeling of unity on the Jesuit-run campus and was impressed by the level of support from the private institution’s alumni.

When SDSU called about a vice president’s position, she had to be convinced to schedule an interview. “But when I came back,” she said, “I was impressed by a much stronger leadership group and a spirit I had not felt previously.”

Among those providing leadership were members of the TCF Board of Directors, the almost three-dozen movers and shakers—mostly Aztec alumni—who have distinguished themselves professionally, philanthropically, and through community service. Many of these volunteer fundraisers credit Carleton with astutely identifying and cultivating members who work well together to advance the institution’s goals.

“Of all the boards I serve on, the Campanile Foundation has the deepest bench and the strongest quality of board members,” said immediate past chair Jack McGrory (’76).

Others cite Carleton’s organizational skills, focus and drive as the primary forces behind her success. “She is relentless,” marveled Mary Curran (’82), current chair of the TCF, who has worked on the board with Carleton for 10 years. “Mary Ruth wills things to happen, and they happen.”

Former board chair Kit Sickels (’60) said Carleton is one of the most persuasive people he knows. “Mary Ruth does not take prisoners; she does not take no for an answer if she wants a yes,” he said.

Sickels describes a woman of uncommon energy who rises and exercises before dawn, fielding board members’ questions via phone call, text and email at almost any hour of any day of the week. She is known for her extensive preparation, resolve and self-assurance, all of which fuel her performance in leadership roles.

“Mary Ruth has great ambition, and she has great confidence,” explained her husband of 28 years, Bruce Hunt. “Her self-belief translates into belief by others.”

Fiercely protective

Those who know her best say Carleton’s self-confidence was evident at an early age. Growing up as the oldest of four siblings in Gold Country, southeast of Sacramento, many of her childhood and teenage experiences were shaped by competition, responsibility and loyalty.

She and her sister, Betsy Jo, were competitive swimmers. At Amador County High School, Betsy Jo was a cheerleader and Mary Ruth—who worked at the local drug store—was yearbook editor. She also competed as Miss Amador in the Miss California Pageant.

All the siblings, like their school teacher mom and forester dad, earned degrees from the University of California, Berkeley (Mary Ruth has two—a bachelor’s in political science and a master’s in journalism). Anti-Vietnam War sentiment ran high in Berkeley and protests were frequent. “I was in a lot of demonstrations,” Carleton admitted.

It was during a protest that Betsy Jo, now an architect living in Oakland, remembers walking along a Berkeley street with Mary Ruth when a police vehicle spewing tear gas approached the sisters. Mary Ruth pulled her younger sister inside a dress shop to wait out the trouble. “She was very protective because I was pretty naïve,” Betsy Jo said.

Even now, Carleton remains fiercely protective of people and things she cares about. She is also fiercely supportive of SDSU, its mission, and especially its students. To many, like former Associated Students vice president Channelle McNutt (’13), Carleton is both mentor and inspiration. “She has been an absolute rock in my development and growth, both as a person and as a professional, and I’m very thankful for that,” said McNutt, who is now SDSU’s assistant director of Annual Fund operations and regional development.

“You always succeed”

Carleton’s dedication to SDSU is demonstrated in myriad ways, from the significant monetary donations she has made to the university, to the grueling travel schedule she maintains serving it. She was among the hearty band of Aztec faithful in Laramie last December, braving sub-freezing temperatures to watch the football team defeat the Wyoming Cowboys and win the Mountain West Conference championship.

“We didn’t have a lot of fans there,” head football coach Rocky Long said. “I think that shows how interested she is in every aspect of the university. She is invested in the whole school.”

That investment has paid off beyond anyone’s expectations. From year one, The Campaign for SDSU has set fundraising records, not just for San Diego State, but for any CSU institution. Sure there were doubters at the outset, but when the initial $500 million goal was reached and revised to $750 million, all qualms were banished. Carleton and the development team she assembled had turned skeptics into true believers.

“She brought this attitude with her that we can make it happen; we will make it happen,” said College of Sciences Dean Stanley Maloy, who remembers a time when even a former campus fundraiser scoffed at the viability of launching a successful campaign.

“What happened was we built a culture of philanthropy by saying the same thing all the time: We don’t get full state support. We have great students. We have great faculty. We have a great institution. We aspire to be a great research institution and the only way we’re going to do it is if we have philanthropy,” Carleton explained.

Not that it all came easily. During the 2007-08 economic recession, the university’s endowment lost a third of its value.

“I remember waking up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Oh, my God! What are we going to do?’” Carleton recalled. “We just had to not panic—which we didn’t—and it came around. You just keep your head down and you keep your eye on what you have to do and don’t get distracted.”

Just as she has done since she was a girl.

“My dad told me one time, ‘You always succeed. You just say you’re going to do something and you do it.’ So maybe that’s what happened with The Campaign for SDSU. I was like, ‘We’re going to do this,’ and we did it.”

The Campaign for SDSU began in 2007 as an effort to generate philanthropic support for SDSU students, faculty, staff and programs. More than 70,000 donors have contributed to help SDSU surpass its campaign goal of $750 million and close in on $800 million.