Historic $50 Million Gift to University of Michigan Creative Writing Program from Helen Zell

The largest gift in the history of the University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts was recently donated by Helen Zell, wife of billionaire investor Sam Zell and executive director of the Zell Family Foundation. The $50 million gift was made through the foundation in support of the University's Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, which it will permanently fund.

Helen Zell is a University of Michigan alumna, and in 2004 she committed a seed fund of $10 million to the University's MFA Creative Writing program. This support helped propel it to a position as one of the top writing programs in the country. The new money will solidify that support and permanently fund scholarships and stipends for master's students in the years to come. Not surprisingly, the program has been newly christened the Helen Zell Writers' Program.

The $50 million gift will provide more than $1 million each year to 22 students in the MFA program (out of 1,000-plus applicants) through tuition waivers, a $22,000 stipend, and health insurance. The University of Michigan is one of the lucky few grantees outside of the Zell Foundation's home base of Chicago. (See Zell Family Foundation: Chicago Grants.)

Helen Zell has always been deeply committed to the creative and intellectual life of the written word. (See Helen Zell's IP profile.) As she explains, "The ability of fiction to develop creativity, to analyze the human psyche, help you understand people — it's critical. It's as important as vitamins or anything else. To me, it's the core of the intellectual health of human beings."

At the the time of the donation's announcement, Zell underscored her motivations: "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. 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."

The university's president, Mary Sue Coleman, also said of the landmark donation, "This is a transformative gift in the humanities, and one that builds on the Michigan literary legacy... Helen is changing the lives of writers and providing the means for important works to be written, enriching the literary landscape."