It’s not often that hundreds of students party with the University president.
Braving chilly temperatures, students, staff, faculty and alumni turned out Friday to celebrate the formal launch of the Victors for Michigan fundraising campaign. Following an outdoor community festival, attendees crowded Hill Auditorium for a glitzy campaign kickoff featuring University President Mary Sue Coleman and campaign chair Stephen Ross.
Organized by the University’s Office of Development, the festival and launch celebration aimed to gather student and donor support for the Victors for Michigan fundraising campaign — an ambitious $4 billion drive slated to run until 2018.
With the inside of Hill Auditorium bathed in blue light, campaign organizers set the mood on high as pop music blared and crowds of yellow-shirted students, alumni and guests filled Hill’s lower bowl and then flowed up to the balcony.
In a carefully choreographed lineup, discussion of the campaign’s top priorities — student support, engaged learning and bold ideas — were punctuated by professionally produced videos and featured students.
For every campaign goal, one of three University representatives — Coleman, Ross or Regent Julia Darlow (D) — appeared onstage to discuss with students the impact of their University experience and the importance of their overall message.
Engineering junior Hannah Cheriyan, one of the students featured in Ross’ segment on “big ideas,” shared her experience working in a University medical lab. The lab works with ECMO machines, an artificial respiratory medical device that saved Cheriyan’s life as a newborn.
“It was so exhilarating to see everyone in the audience getting so pumped up and waving their lights around (as) I was talking about a cause I really love,” Cheriyan said.
In a program largely focused on showcasing exceptional students and the University programs about which they’re passionate, Cheriyan said effective storytelling played a crucial role in connecting with alumni and potential donors.
That type of storytelling will play a central role in the fundraising campaign’s strategy, especially considering its focus on student support.
In an interview after the event, Coleman said the testimonials captured Michigan in a form “more beautiful” than she could have imagined.
“It was very emotional because I think that what this represents, for me, it was so much about the energy of the students and what they can do and how committed they are, not only to this place, but to the world,” Coleman said.
And after the showcase Friday, it seems the student’s energy — and the campaign’s strategy — are already paying off.
Jerry May, University vice president for development, said in the last few days, scores of donors have approached him during kickoff-related events ready to make contributions.
“The students just knocked it out of the park tonight,” May said in an interview inside Hill Auditorium. “I was so proud to have students being themselves because it makes me realize why I do what I do every day, and I’ll guarantee you every development officer in the room felt the same way.”
May and development officials are also relying on the campaign’s inclusive nature to drive giving as well as foster an understanding of philanthropy’s role at the University. Though the University hosted multiple alumni and donor events Friday night, campaign organizers also prided themselves on the very public launch — an unusual platform for University campaign kickoffs.
One of the Victors for Michigan campaign’s vice chairs, Rich Rogel, who also chaired the Michigan Difference campaign from 2003 to 2008, said the event gave him a message and materials to take to other donors and supporters throughout the country and the world.
“It’s motivating donors, but it’s also educating people about what’s going on at this university — it is incredible what we’re doing here,” Rogel said. “I’m over in China, and they know what we’re doing here more than some people in the state of Michigan, sometimes.”
Rogel, who donated $50 million, added that he expects to be back in Ann Arbor 10 to 12 times per year until the campaign ends to engage with donors, development planners and University officials.
Darlow, who spoke about the campaign’s primary goal of fundraising for student support, said after the event that she was proud to represent the University’s governing board in articulating the need for affordability.
Darlow added that Coleman’s gravitas with donors and students alike helped make the event a success.
“Mary Sue Coleman, the emotion that she evokes in all of us, it was really very special,” Darlow said. “The love that was in the auditorium for her tonight was extraordinary.”
Just prior to the main event in Hill Auditorium, hundreds of students congregated on Ingalls Mall beneath strings of holiday lights and among the scents of cider and popcorn for the kickoff’s community festival.
LSA freshmen Jennifer Wang and Puja Nair hadn’t heard about the event prior to wandering through for cider.
Though they had read the e-mail from Coleman sent to students earlier in the week to publicize the kickoff, Wang and Nair did not know much about the campaign prior to the festival.
Engineering senior Michelle McClaughry also saw Coleman’s e-mail and decided to support the University’s efforts.
“I knew that it was philanthropy and donating money and I knew there was going to be food but I didn’t know it was going to be like this,” McClaughry said.
Still, a handful of students in attendance hesitated to laud the campaign’s initial efforts.
Steps from a cider stand, two students handed out flyers protesting the University’s Munger Residence Hall construction, a project funded by a $110 million gift from philanthropist Charles Munger.
Rackham student Arcelia Gutierrez said she hopes the University will consider student input in deciding what the project’s donations will be directed toward, as some students have expressed discontent with the new hall’s design and cost.
“We want to have people thinking more critically about donations,” Gutierrez said.
Additionally, the Coalition for Tuition Equality, a student group that presses for granting in-state tuition to undocumented resident students, placed posters strung along trees and lamps in front of Hill Auditorium before the kickoff. Many of the posters included the phrase “Victors for Diversity” — a play on the official campaign name.
LSA senior Jacob Huston, a CTE member and speaker for the Michigan Latin@ Assembly, said the goal was not to protest the campaign’s launch, but rather to draw attention to the unmet financial need of many undocumented students.
“We want them to guarantee that they’ll meet the full financial need of these students,” Huston said. “In reality, there’s probably not too many of these students coming to the University, but still, the need that they have is very real.”
LSA senior Meg Scribner, along with other CTE organizers, met with University development officials in recent weeks to discuss aid for minority and undocumented students. CTE hopes to encourage financial aid for undocumented students as part of the campaign’s $1 billion target for student support.
Because the donors choose the initiatives to which they gave, Scribner said CTE plans to work with development officials to recruit donors to their cause.
Further down Ingalls Mall, 1969 University alum Richard Price, Jr. had wandered to the festival after attending an alumni function in the Michigan League.
Price has been previously involved in University campaigns and said he was invited to attend the kickoff festivities. He also lauded the University’s top campaign priority: student aid.
“It looks like what they (the University) are trying to do ultimately is subsidize lots of undergraduates so they don’t have to pay $50,000 a year,” Price said. “So I think that’s awesome.”
At the event in the League, Price said student recipients of financial aid shared the impact of University support on their collegiate experience. He said this strategy was particularly effective.
But after the lights of Friday’s events go dark, University officials are tasked with carrying out the remainder of a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar campaign.
E. Royster Harper, University vice president for student life, said the campaign’s $1 billion target for student support makes her ready to work even harder.
“It’s when you have to hit the pavement,” Harper said. “The real work now is talking to donors, talking to alums and trying to achieve our goal.”
—Daily Staff Reporter Jennifer Calfas contributed reporting.