Wayne State reaches $750M fundraising goal early

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Wayne State University’s Old Main. The university has reached the $750 million goal of its “Pivotal Moments” fundraising campaign, three months early and ahead of its 150th anniversary as it continues its work in Detroit, officials announced Tuesday.

Wayne State University has reached the $750 million goal of its “Pivotal Moments” fundraising campaign, three months early and ahead of its 150th anniversary as it continues its work in Detroit, officials announced Tuesday.

Putting the campaign over the threshold was a $2.1 million gift from the estate of Jacqueline Walker, who graduated from WSU's law school in 1954 and went on to become a judge in California. She wanted her gift to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds, which make up a significant percentage of Wayne State students, school officials said. 

But there were other gifts in recent months that were equally important and symbolic, WSU President M. Roy Wilson told The Detroit News in an exclusive interview. Among them was an anonymous $1 million donation and a $10 million gift from  American Axle & Manufacturing co-founder and philanthropist Mort Harris to guarantee funding for prospective medical students.  

"It's all the same theme -- helping kids from the Detroit area who are under-privileged to be able to excel and reach their dreams," Wilson said. "Our story is resonating. People understand we are an important institution -- a rare kind of institution. There are not a lot of institutions that are Tier One research institutions that also are as diverse as we are and serve as many type of students that we do."

Underway since 2009, WSU's campaign is its most ambitious, and went into its public phase in October 2014. 

Among the other significant gifts were $40 million, the university's largest in history, from Mike and Marian Ilitch, for the Mike Ilitch School of Business. The Ilitches also donated $8.5 million to the school of medicine. 

Other gifts came from distinguished alumni and supporters including a $25 million gift from James A. Anderson and his wife, Patricia, to promote entrepreneurship; a $10 million joint gift from real estate developer Stephen M. Ross and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert for the law school, and $9.5 million from philanthropist Gretchen Valade for jazz studies.

Alumni and friends can still make a donation until the close date of Sept. 30, officials said.

Of the campaign's 84,000 donors, almost 50 percent were not alumni of Wayne State -- which makes a statement about the city and the university, said Susan E.  Burns, the school's vice president for development and alumni affairs and president of the WSU Foundation. 

"They believe in the power of Wayne State: the research that is going on here, the impact on the community and the impact on the future workforce of southeast Michigan," Burns said. "They really believe what Wayne State can do for Detroit."

Wayne State is in the heart of Detroit with nearly 75 percent of the university's alumni living in Michigan. Of those employed six months after graduation in spring 2017, 82 percent were employed in Michigan, and 33 percent were employed in Detroit, according to an annual survey by WSU Career Services.

"There's a real interest in the city and building leadership," Burns said. "A higher percentage of our students stay in the area than some of the other Michigan universities. People really understand that." 

Among the WSU donors who are not alumni are Grosse Pointe residents Anne and Dr. John Roberts, who both graduated from the University of Michigan. They support Wayne State because they believe it makes Detroit a better place.

"There was never a doubt in our mind we wanted to support our city," said Anne Roberts. "Wayne State was very high on our list because we have always known it’s a fine school ... and education is crucial. We feel that Wayne does such a good job of educating kids who might not be able to go college otherwise."

Wayne State enrolled 27,089 students in fall 2017. About half are eligible for the Pell Grant, the federal program providing need-based grants to low-income students, said Brian Escamilla, WSU director of development communications.

About 87 percent of Wayne State students receive at least some need-based aid, Escamilla said, and 18 percent of students come from families earning about $20,000 or less, according to a study by the New York Times. 

That's why $125 million of the campaign funds will be used to create new student scholarships and enhance existing ones.

When the fundraising campaign began, Wayne State had 590 scholarship funds. Now, the school has more than 1,083. Some of them are based on merit, some on financial need and some are restricted to students in a specific school or college, Burns said.

"We doubled the scholarships but more than doubled the funds," Wilson said. 

In 2017-18, WSU awarded students $135.6 million in scholarships and grants.

Funds raised through the Pivotal Moments campaign also will be used for a permanent endowment to support students and faculty and meeting WSU's vision of becoming a preeminent public urban research university.

Wilson said Wayne State's freshman population is growing, students are graduating faster and the number of first-time college students at WSU has jumped 26 percent, from 1,847 last year to 2,327 this year.

Wayne State's first-time students also are increasingly more diverse, the president said, with African-Americans increasing 28.2 percent over last year and Hispanics increasing 39 percent. 

"There's a lot of rhetoric, there is a lot of pressure on international students and lot of talk about pressure on affirmative action and lot of issues related to immigration, particularly in the Middle East, and we serve all those students," Wilson said. "We are a very inclusive kind of school, and we always have been."

WSU’s fundraiser ends as other Michigan university campaigns that launched around the same time also wrapping up too. 

UM’s $4 billion Victors for Michigan campaign reached its goal last year, 17 months early, but the campaign continues through Dec. 31. Through June 30, preliminary numbers show $4.89 billion raised so far, said UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald. Of the donors, 42 percent are alumni. 

Meanwhile, Michigan State University's $1.5 billion campaign, The Empower Extraordinary Campaign, runs through the end of this year, though it has already raised $1.64 billion. It met its goal last year, a year ahead of the campaign’s end date, said spokeswoman Jessi Adler. Forty-three percent of the individual donors are alumni. 

WSU will celebrate its fundraising success and its 150th anniversary during an event at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 26 in the middle of campus.

"We're going to have a big party," Wilson said.