It is my honor to be here today on a historic day for Western Michigan University. This University owes its very existence to visionary leaders from Kalamazoo, who banded together in 1903 and prevailed over other cities and regions to make sure that they were the home for the new public university to provide and produce teachers for rural kids and urban environments. They did that because they believed in the power of education. In this very building those visionary leaders came together, that brought to life that belief that education has the power to lift individuals and transform communities.
We stand upon their shoulders, proud to continue to advance their vision of an opportunity university for anyone who has the ambition to learn and advance themselves. We have long been called a “hidden gem.” But if we take a good look at the world today, we see that we should be far from satisfied from the progress we have made in in creating opportunity and prosperity for everyone.
Today, higher education has never been more important in an economy built upon problem solving, creativity and cognitive flexibility. Those skills will only become more important in the years to come. But a college degree has never been more expensive, as public policy shifts the burden of college costs from the public to the students and their families, increasingly placing it out of reach of too many.
Across the country, far too many students enter college and leave with nothing but debt. WMU has joined with other educational leaders to increase persistence and graduation rates, but much work remains to be done. Barriers to student success remain and achievement gaps amongst the most vulnerable populations are stubbornly persistent. While some barriers are indeed financial, often they go far beyond that. We’re finding students who need holistic support and we must look hard at our systems to ensure they provide equitable opportunities for everyone.
Now make no mistake, that the challenges we face today go beyond our colleges and universities. We need only to look at the perspective of the past year to find heartbreaking stories of inequities in health care outcomes across rural and minority populations. Our young people are demanding that we commit ourselves to furthering social justice both on campus and in preparing them to be positive forces off it.
If we are to change our condition, we must envision a new future, one that is more holistic, more inclusive. We are committed to the hard work and the actions needed to maximize the potential of every member of our community to create prosperity for all.
These efforts will be catalyzed by today’s historic announcement. I am honored to tell you that we have received a profoundly generous gift from graduates of Western Michigan University. It is transformative in its nature, its size and its scope, and it will revolutionize the inclusiveness and impact of our educational community now and for generations to come.
Our benefactors have invested a total of $550 million in our students, medical treatments and breakthroughs, and intercollegiate athletics. It is the largest donation ever made for a public institution of higher education in U.S. history. It will have a deep and lasting impact on the future of Western Michigan University, the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, our athletic program and the Kalamazoo community.
We call it ‘The Empowering Futures Gift’ because, at its core, is our donors’ belief that education empowers people and communities to create a bright future for all. That is why a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is at the center of this gift. It will make a difference to all the members of our community, with an impact designed to ripple through education, health care, athletics, and through our community, crossing geographic and socioeconomic strata to elevate our ability to fulfill our mission “so that all may learn.”
The Empowering Futures gift includes $200 million for WMU, $300 million for the WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine and $50 million for Bronco Athletics. It will fund scholarships, advance medical education and research, support faculty expertise, increase athletic competitiveness and make possible numerous other initiatives which will help us holistically develop students into graduates with purpose, who will find meaningful careers and lives well lived. In short, it will transform our ability to have a lasting impact on countless students and on the countless communities they touch.
We remain grounded in the idea that offering an opportunity for a college education not only changes one person’s life trajectory, it can change an entire community. For over a century, Kalamazoo has seen education as a gateway to opportunity and prosperity. But the prosperity of our community is predicated on the prosperity of each member, and requires that we be intentional in reducing barriers to those who have been historically underrepresented in higher education.
Empowering Futures will enable those of us at Western in the academic and athletic arenas and within the WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine to significantly transform our ability to give access and opportunity to our students, to ensure that we attract and retain a diverse and dynamic faculty, and that we can train caring and committed health care providers and graduate classes of well-trained doctors that reflect the diversity of the communities in which they serve.
The donors who are making today’s announcement possible are signifying that they believe in higher education’s power to change lives. By investing in Western, they are demonstrating that they recognize and support our ongoing efforts to serve as an engine of social mobility. They are joining in and encouraging us as we do our part to level the playing field so that the chance for prosperity is more equitably available for all. We take pride in being a University that understands that it’s not where you start in life, it’s where you finish. Thousands of first-generation college students have chosen Western for its high-quality education. They earned degrees that helped them change the trajectory of their lives and that of their families. We must keep that pathway open.
We’ll invest the $200 million committed to WMU across four areas: access and retention, purpose and passion, well-being and transformational excellence. These funds will put higher education and experiential learning within reach for thousands of students. We are committed to increasing scholarship support, as well as room and board support, so that students can have access to the living learning communities which are so important for retention. We want to keep higher education within the reach of their dreams. We’ll also be expanding support for juniors and seniors who are cash-strapped so that they have the financial means to keep going up until the day I get the pleasure of handing them their diplomas.
Along with improving access to a college education, it’s important to help students use that access to marry purpose and passion to drive their pursuits on the job and in life. We want our students to discover what fuels their ambition and enables them to withstand the inevitable bumps in the road along life’s journey. That’s not a new idea for Western, but now we’ll be able to expand on it through activities like paid experiential learning for students who rely on jobs to fund their education and investing in staff support to help guide students in their pursuit of a meaningful career.
And if there’s one thing that living through a global pandemic has taught us, it’s that mental health and well-being are absolutely vital components of a rich and rewarding life. We know college students feel anxious—most of us dealt with stress as well during 2020—and so we have added resources to support that in counseling and other care. Empowering Futures will allow us to expand and broaden that support, with new professional and technical tools aimed at improving mental health and helping students develop healthy habits that become part of lifetime choices.
Students thrive in learning environments when they feel both challenged and supported. At Western, our faculty already excel at doing both. Our most recent post-graduation survey found that 92% of respondents said they found a faculty member who cared about them not just as a student, but as an individual. That’s a pretty impressive number, and thanks to our dedicated faculty. We now have the chance to offer those instructors and investigators the opportunity to expand their work and explore new arenas. We’ll also have the chance to enhance the diversity of our faculty, to hire and retain dynamic and energetic educators to advance interdisciplinary education and research.
I’ll let Dean Termhulen expound on the opportunities that Empowering Futures will offer to the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, but as chair of the board, I can say I am thrilled by the prospects of reducing the financial burdens for future doctors that will enable them to concentrate on learning to serve and to heal.
There will also be additional opportunities to expand recruiting to attract candidates that reflect the full diversity of the communities that they serve. And by expanding the school’s portfolio in basic science, and clinical and community-based research, we’ll not only serve society, but offer students the chance to enrich their medical school experience.
It will also be inspiring to hear from Athletic Director Beauregard and have her talk about how offering our students the chance to excel goes well beyond earning trophies and other accolades in competition. It means helping them build leadership skills, delve into the stores of their physical and mental endurance and learn to balance the demands of sports and scholastics. Our Bronco competitors will continue to make us proud on the field, across the arena and over the ice. And now, we’ll have the ability to expand our support for their academic performance and well-being, and broaden their horizons with new opportunities to connect with young people as mentors and role models.
This is truly a ground-breaking gift with unprecedented potential to absolutely transform our institution and how we serve our students, our community and the broader society. It will enable us to redefine the opportunities that we can offer; to live up to our potential as a diverse, welcoming and inclusive campus that gives everyone the chance to discover a passion, to hone in on their own purpose, to explore the possibilities and to deliver on the promise “So that all may learn.”