LSA program receives largest donation ever made to college

By Paige Pearcy, Deputy Statement Editor
Published March 7, 2013

While colleges around the country are coming to terms with lessened support from governments, the LSA Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program today received the largest monetary gift in the college's existence — $50 million, the third largest donation in the University's history.

The gift, which comes from the Zell Family Foundation in the name of alum and executive director of the foundation Helen Zell, wife of alum and real estate tycoon Sam Zell, will be used to perpetuate a unique aspect of the highly competitive program — making it nearly cost-free for its students. The program will be renamed the Helen Zell Writer's Program in recognition of the gift, coincidentally made on World Book Day.

"The goal of this MFA program is twofold — to ease the financial burdens of talented budding authors so they have time to write, and to teach them the skills that will help them refine their voice," Zell said in a statement. "Books have the power to inspire and change people, to create action, to generate movements, and to better understand those qualities that are uniquely human. We want to capture important stories that might otherwise go untold."

Zell graduated from the university in 1964 with a bachelor's degree in English Language and Literature. She has given to the program — which provides graduate education for students interested in writing novels and poetry — in the past, as well. With her previous donation in 2004 amounting to about $10 million, the previously two-year program has added a third fellowship year, dubbed the "Zellowship." Zellows are financially supported and provided with health benefits while they write during this third year.

University President Mary Sue Coleman said in a statement that Zell and her gifts are "transformative," and builds upon the patronage Avery Hopwood, a Jazz age playwright who gave money to support the Hopwood Awards at the University.

"Helen is changing the lives of writers and providing the means for important works to be written, enriching the literary landscape," Coleman said. "Her support of fiction and poetry is a commitment to the written word, which allows readers to explore, provides intellectual awakening, and stirs the imagination."

MFA director Michael Byers said the gift will allow writers in the program to continue to pursue writing, instead of taking non-related jobs that take away from their creative time.

"Helen’s gift puts writers exactly where they want to be — at their desks, with no commitments but those they make to their art," Byers said in a statement.

The Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing was started in 1982 and since has grown to be renown across the country. The program accepts about 22 students every year from over 1,000 applications. Numerous alum from the MFA program have gone on to achieve national acclaim: MFA alum Elizabeth Kostova's novel, The Historian, topped The New York Times Best Sellers the first week it was published. Salvage the Bones, written by Jesmyn Ward while she was in the program, won the National Book Award in 2011.

While the program will not expand as a result of the donation, it will be able to continue at its same caliber, Byers added.

"From these desks, a great wealth of language and storytelling is emerging," Byers said. "Those stories will continue to inform and enlarge our sense of the world for decades to come."

This is a developing story. Check back to michigandaily.com for updates.