This Historic Campus Gift Is Yesterday's News. Which Is Exactly the Point

Credit: Alertjean via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)Bob Dylan famously said "Don't look back," but it wasn't the greatest advice, with any number of other sages telling us why it's actually rather important to know one's past. After all, things tend to repeat themselves.

Such is the underlying logic behind a historic gift from Alpert Lepage to his alma mater Villanova University. Lepage, the retired co-chairman of Lepage Bakeries Inc., pledged $10 million to the Pennsylvania school to establish the Center for History in the Public Interest.

The Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest will be a multifaceted resource that through academic programs, research, publications and events will engage the public, policymakers, scholars, teachers, and students from history and other fields.

The commitment marks the largest-ever gift to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the university’s oldest and largest college.

We've reported lately on some impressive gifts flow to the liberal arts space, but we've never seen a gift of this magnitude earmarked towards the field of history. Why is that?

Well for starters, it isn't the sexiest field in the world. It isn't as immediately intriguing—or quixotic?—as recent gives to elevate public discourse. History also lacks the subtle artistry of literature or philosophy. (But that's just our bias talking.)

Perhaps most tellingly, history, like these aforementioned fields, it isn't perceived as a ticket to a lucrative career, especially given all the STEM-related hoopla across the higher education space.

None of this matters to Lepage. "My hope is that the good study of history will foster a greater understanding of today relative to yesterday," Mr. Lepage said. "History often repeats itself, and the center will bring historical perspective to current events."

Amen, right? And here we should pause to note that this gift underscores the upside of the massive increase in the number of wealthy Americans over the few decades—which is that there is now a larger, more diverse pool of major donors than ever before, with a vast range of interests. That's good news for campuses looking to fund the kinds of overlooked areas that donors typically haven't been much interested in. 

And what about Lepage himself?

Well, he joined the family business in 1971 and was co-owner from 1978 and chairman from 1983 to 2012, when the company was acquired by Flowers Foods, Inc. He also was chairman of the Quality Bakers of America Co-operative and treasurer of the American Bakers Association.

As for his recent philanthropic endeavors, in 2015 the Albert Lepage Foundation gave New Orleans-based Tulane U. Freeman School of Business a $12.5-million donation to establish a center for entrepreneurship and innovation. Earlier this year, the foundation committed $10 million to Hebron Academy to complete renovations to the Albert Lepage Center for the Arts and to establish the Albert Lepage Center for Diversity. Lepage also established the Albert R. Lepage Endowed Professorship in History at Villanova.

And so we'd like to sign off with a rather applicable quote from William Faulkner: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."