Western Michigan University gets 'groundbreaking' $550 million gift

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
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Celebrating the largest gift in public higher education, Western Michigan University officials on Tuesday laid out an ambitious vision that calls for transforming the university's medical school, applicant pool and athletic program over the next decade.

A group of anonymous WMU alumni bestowed a historic, $550 million gift that will more than double the university's $470 million endowment over 10 years. 

Plans for the funding, known as the Empowering Futures Gift, include $300 million for Western Michigan's Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine; $200 million for need-based financial aid, faculty hiring and other university initiatives; and $50 million for Western's Bronco athletic program. 

Most of the money will go into the endowment so initiatives in those areas can be sustained for generations, with some current dollars being made available to have an immediate impact, officials said.

Western Michigan University's Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine is among the beneficiaries of the largest gift to a higher education institution in U.S. history.

"This is a truly groundbreaking gift with unprecedented potential," WMU President Edward Montgomery said. "It will absolutely transform our institution and how we serve our students, community and the broader society."

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the previous record for a single gift to a public university in the United States was $500 million. The Helen Diller Foundation contributed that amount to the University of California at San Francisco in 2017. Penny and Phil Knight of the Nike empire also donated that amount to the University of Oregon a year earlier. 

WMU, Michigan's fifth-largest public university, is a high-level research facility in Kalamazoo, but it has a smaller research presence than the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University. It was founded in 1903 and officially gained university status in 1957.

Western Michigan has received significant financial support before, reporting in 2011 a $100 million anonymous cash gift that would serve as the foundation for its medical school. Three years later, the wealthy Stryker family revealed themselves as the donors.

The latest gift comes as state funding to public higher education has stagnated in recent years, leading Western Michigan and other state universities to hike tuition. It costs about $13,000 in tuition and fees to attend WMU for a year.

Meanwhile, WMU's enrollment declined 5% in 2020 and 2019, and the school is competing for students from a declining pool of high school seniors in Michigan. It has 18,191 students, including 14,422 undergraduates, according to the school's website

The gift also comes at a time when higher education has never been more important in the economy, Montgomery said.

"But a college degree has never been more expensive, as the public policy shifts the burden of college from the public to the students and their families, increasingly placing it out of reach of too many," he said. 

Daniel Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, said the donation is "almost beyond words."

"It's great to see a gift of this historic magnitude be given to a regional public university," said Hurley, who earned a doctorate from WMU. "Often, when we see gifts like this, it's often given to private, elite universities on the coast that may not need it as much. Western Michigan University will assuredly put these dollars to great use and get those dollars into the hands of students that will benefit most from this support as well as faculty and researchers and other aspects of the university enterprise."

At the core of the gift for students attending the Kalamazoo-based university are resources to create new opportunities and promote diversity, equity and inclusion among students and faculty, Montgomery said.

Western Michigan's student body is 68% White, 10.6% Black, 7.1% Hispanic, 3.8% of two or more races and 2.1% Asian, according to university officials. About 30% of university students are recipients of federal Pell grants, which are given to those in financial need.

The funds will be used to give students access and retain them through scholarships and financial aid, university officials said. Other funding will be used to help students live in residence halls if they cannot afford it so they can have access to the living and learning communities, which Montgomery said have been proven to retain students so they can graduate.

Money will also be available for upperclassmen who are trying to work their way through college.

"Access and retention will be one of the pillars," Montgomery said.

But not all barriers to higher education are financial, the president said, so other areas will also be shored up, including mental and physical health services, along with academic counseling. The university also plans to invest in paid internships, experiential learning programs and other opportunities for students to build professional skills and develop relationships.

“We are going to provide some transformational opportunities,” Montgomery said. “We want to be able to provide opportunities for our faculty … to be able to put in place new and innovative programs, to enhance those programs that are world-class and to make sure our faculty is also diverse.

“A part of access is making sure everyone has opportunity, and that means we have to intentionally be committed to diversity and inclusion.”

The gift opens up the opportunity to do so many things for the community, the WMU medical school and the people it serves, said medical school dean Paula Termuhlen.

And for her, it's personal. Termuhlen said she is the first in her family to go to college and only recently paid off her student loans. The gift will help students go to medical school and not have to worry about the financial pressures, she said.

"We anticipate that we will be able to create enough scholarship dollars that every one of our students will receive something," she said. 

It will also help the medical school recruit a diverse student body and attract some of the brightest minds to address society's most vexing health issues.

"It is going to change the trajectory of our institution exponentially," Termuhlen said.

Watch the video.

Kalamazoo had another historic moment in 2005 when it kicked off the free college movement with a group of wealthy donors funding the Kalamazoo Promise. The scholarship offers Kalamazoo public school students a free college education after graduation and has since been replicated by hundreds of communities across the country.

"Today is one compelling example demonstrating the special nature of our city of Kalamazoo, a community that wholeheartedly embraces open access to quality education and champions it like no other,” said Kristen DeVries, executive director of the WMU Foundation.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Amelia Benavides-Colon contributed.

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