Zell Family Foundation donates 50M to Michigan graduate writing program

Submitted by oldcityblue on March 7th, 2013 at 8:56 AM


Great article on Helen Zell (wife of Sam Zell, real estate mogul - both UofM grads) and her generous work and donations to the UofM graduate writing program. As a result, the article notes that we are second only to Iowa in the nation regarding current MFA rankings.


Hardware Sushi

March 7th, 2013 at 9:28 AM ^

That's an awesome gift and pretty badass piece of publicity for our MFA program. Glad to see Zell's donations actually showing up in the quality of the program, too.


March 7th, 2013 at 1:17 PM ^

Kind of like the Michigan football program.  If it wasn't the very first MFA in writing, it was one of the first.  Michigan's MFA program is relatively new, so if it's #2 to Iowa in such a short time, and even before this donation, that's pretty impressive. 

Clarence Boddicker

March 7th, 2013 at 11:00 AM ^

We are firmly entrenched at #2 behind Iowa--this means not losing people to UT-Austin. Go Zellows and Go Blue! The program attracts nationally too--very few of us write about corn.

Section 1

March 7th, 2013 at 11:26 AM ^

One thing -- perhaps small in the context of a huge gift -- is that this was not a gift to endow a building or a structure with Mr./Mrs. Zell's name on it.  There's a good bit of that at Michigan; massive shiny structures, provately funded with donor's names on them, but with a university begging for the state for cash for operating expenses.

Many donors like the arrangements where their gifts are "Naming Gifts."  Stuctures get named, in return for the donation.

This one, as I understand it, is just to fund the program.  You can't put donors' names on people in graduate studies.

All of which makes this very large gift even more generous, at least in the common understanding of large gifts to universities.

Section 1

March 7th, 2013 at 4:27 PM ^

There's the Lurie-Zell program as well.  And there are lots of non-building things like endowed departmental chairs, etc.

But it is different, at least for some donors; putting your name on a "program" versus getting your name in large fancy letters on building, or a stadium concourse, or a carillon tower... you get the idea. 

Anyway, the main point is huge props to the Zells.

Clarence Boddicker

March 7th, 2013 at 12:00 PM ^

The gift is the funding of a third year (already known as the Zell year) for all admitted writers--forever. She already funded the program. Prior to 2012, the third year was only awarded to a 1/4 of the writers. Then all writers were offered a third year--but this now makes that permanent, as opposed to something that was only done for a few years before funding was dropped to a 1/4 of the writers again. The timing of the gift and the story is also fortuitous, as fall 2012 admits to the program are just getting acceptance letters and making decisions about programs. And hey, there's the Zell program on Yahoo! Great day all around for the program in our continuing battle with the Michener program at UT-Austin.


March 7th, 2013 at 12:13 PM ^

but Sam Zell is a major-league asshole who, among other things, played a pivotal role in driving the Tribune Co. into bankruptcy via a leveraged buyout that saddled the company with $10 billion in debt. Zell also was pursuing selling naming rights to Wrigley Field before he sold the Cubs. 

yossarians tree

March 7th, 2013 at 12:22 PM ^

This is puzzling to me, actually. I was an English major and considered getting an MFA in writing, but there was and continues to be a lot of controversey about the value of such a degree. Can the art of writing well be taught? I think an MFA program is fine just in the fact that it puts people in a situation where they can write, but I'm not sure anything can be taught. Mostly a writer teaches him or herself how to write by just doing it.

One of the heavier criticisms of college MFA programs is that they exist primarily to harbor academics and "unsuccessful" writers (i.e. those who cannot make their living writing books). Thus it becomes a kind of echo chamber for writers who couldn't make it, an ivory tower, where in reality what young writers need to do is go out and live their lives and write, not hand over another $30,000 a year so tenured professors can have a job. No mistake, many of these profs are fine writers. But the publishing world is brutally unfair. There are great books by really good writers that never see the light of day; meanwhile, barely literate crap can become a bestseller and someone like Tom Clancy is a multi-millionaire.

Don't get me wrong, I'm ecstatic that such a donation is coming back to the University. I guess if it was my money (and it it clearly isn't) I would spread it around a bit.


March 7th, 2013 at 1:13 PM ^

I doubt that Helen Zell made the $50 million she's donating; Sam earned the cash. Similarly, Penny Stamps, the Art School alum whose name now is attached like a remora to the school is married to a hugely successful financier who makes his dough in hedge funds, and that's where "her" money came from for the donation to the art school. Yep, I know those respective programs and schools don't give a flying f*ck where the money comes from; they just want to make sure the check doesn't bounce.


March 7th, 2013 at 2:18 PM ^

The shallow, planar and almost whimsical hellfire implies threat without harmful intent, warmth without danger. All the while the ephemiral, buoyant and seemingly eternal pate stares with the taciturn defiance of obvious transcendance. Playfully iconographic and yet graphic all at once, a demiurgic promotion of the Michigan difference.

Clarence Boddicker

March 7th, 2013 at 1:38 PM ^

But I'd like to offer a couple of answers. One is that you encapsulated modern publishing without putting the dots together. You've said that university faculty harbor "unsuccessful writers (i.e. those who cannot make their living writing books)." Then you note later that "there are great books by really good writers that never see the light of day; meanwhile, barely literate crap can become a bestseller and someone like Tom Clancy is a multi-millionaire." Your second point is correct but invalidates the first. The days of Hemingway, when great lit writers sold a crap-ton of books and dated movie starlets, is long past. Books whose sales would allow a writer to be self-supporting are genre fiction offerings like Harry Potter, or those Vampires who love and fight Werewolves books, or self-help books, or, yes, Tom Clancey. Writers who actually do "lit" can't anticipate self-supporting sales. So the best comptempory writers--the folks winning Pulitzers and Nobel prizes--are on faculty, somewhere, teaching in MFA programs.

As for the value of an MFA, I can only speak for myself. Writing can't be taught, but craft can. Why does a story work? The techiques great writers use have always been passed on, whether in discussion salons or roundtables. MFA programs can be thought of as formalized versions of those types of groups, with the university serving as patron instead of a Medici. What can't be taught is content--what you write about. The stories are something you have to bring into the program with you. And that's why getting my MFA has been great for me. I entered the program as a non-trad, older student; I've already lived plenty and now write about places I've been and people I've known. Not going straight to an MFA out of undergrad, but instead going out into the world and living experiences worth writing about, is probably the best decision you could've made. And at some point later, if you discover that the stories are interesting but the craft is weak, an MFA could wonders for your approach to your work.

5th and Long

March 12th, 2013 at 3:57 PM ^

$50 milion is an amazingly generous gift...but with that kind of money you'd think she'd be able to afford a hi-def tv  (see picture accompanying article).