Behind a Gift for an Endowed Chair: A Law Student Turned Faculty Member Turned Donor

We share a lot of interesting stories about big higher ed gifts and how they come to be. Chances are, though, you haven't heard a story like the one behind a recent gift to Southern Methodist University. The story here doesn't involve eye-popping numbers, as is often the case, but it's pretty unusual, and involves plenty of lessons we talk about at IP, and a few new ones as well.

Ellen K. Solender recently gave a $2 million gift  to the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University to endow a faculty chair in women and the law. The Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and the Law supports "a faculty member whose research, teaching, and advocacy advances equality for all women in the legal profession."

Solender joined the SMU faculty in 1973, and in 1977, became the second woman in the school's history to receive tenure. Solender retired in 1994 as professor emeritus of law. Before Solender was a long-tenured professor at SMU, though, she was a student, earning her J.D. from the school in 1971. So Solender had quite a long history at SMU, more than 20 years on campus.

We're seeing more gifts these days from faculty members, and this angle always interests us. You don't tend to think of academics as having deep pockets, but many do—either through inheritances, their spouse's earnings, or the success of their own side ventures. (Note to development offices: If you're not snooping into the net worths of your faculty, you should be!) 

Related:

In one gift from a university professor I wrote about, I noted that the profile of this kind of donor is uniquely characterized by direct contact with a school on a near-daily basis, interacting with students, and interfacing with administrators. Rather than an alumnus donor who's been pulled away from a school's orbit over the years, or at least is removed from the day-to-day to some degree, university professors are right in the thick of it, and they know first-hand the need for more resources. Sure, this isn't exactly the case with Solender, who retired in the 1990s, but again, she was on the ground at SMU for decades, which sharply contrasts her from typical alumni donors.

Not only that—presumably, a student who becomes a longtime faculty member at that school really likes the place, and is particularly committed to it.

Oh, and by the way, Solender was 44 years old when she graduated from SMU School of Law. Yes, you read that right. Prior to her long tenure at SMU, Solender worked for Bell Labs after graduating from Oberlin College. When she and her late husband moved to Dallas, Solender started working for the Wall Street Journal and also became involved in local civic life, which included the League of Women Voters. However, when she felt that some government officials weren't taking her credentials seriously, she went back to school and got her J.D. from SMU law. The rest is history.

Cool, right?

It's worth spelling out the intensely personal elements involved here, and how Solender used education to pivot into a new space and empower herself. This helps explain the nature of the gift, and its focus on women and law.

As Solender puts it: "My mother worked for the passage of the 19th Amendment and thought she would see equality in her lifetime. I thought I would see it in mine... I now realize these were only milestones on a longer journey to equality. These issues are so important to me, it is my hope that this endowed chair could be a catalyst and hopefully speed up the journey to equality for women.”