A Big Alumni Gift With a Big Goal: To Help Revive an Entire City

Lots of people seem to be lining up these days to give the Motor City a jumpstart. Among the latest: Wayne State University alumnus James A. Anderson and his wife Patricia, who recently gave $25 million to the College of Engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit. 

We like to cheer for the underdogs when it comes to higher ed giving, and so we can't resist spotlighting a story with two underdogs: Wayne State, which most people have never heard of, and the beleaguered city where it's based, which has lost a quarter of its population in the past decade and filed for bankruptcy last year. 

Why is James Anderson pitching in to help out? Because he's an alum, yes, but also because Detroit is the city where he made his fortune, and you should never underestimate the loyalty to a place that higher ed donors can have, even as most coverage of big gifts tends to fixate on institutions.

Anderson serves as president and CEO of Urban Science, a global automotive retail consulting firm in Detroit, with more than 850 employees in 19 offices around the world. The seeds of the company were sown in the late 1970s, when Cadillac reached out to young engineer Anderson. At the time, Cadillac was trying to map its customers in Chicago—all 37,000 of them—manually, with pushpins. Instead, Anderson pioneered an automated mapping process and snagged his first client. 

Anderson was prepared for all of this, having developed environmental models and computer mapping techniques as an instructor at Wayne State, where he also received undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering. Later, through the Wayne State University Center for Urban Studies, he mapped other forms of demographic data.

And herein lies another point worth noting: The more degrees someone has from an institution, the higher their loyalty tends to be, and any campus development office worth its salt should be able to easily identify these multiple degree holders and cross-check that info with giving capacity. Throw in a long attachment to the university's home base and you get a guy like Anderson: A wealthy local booster who owes everything to his alma mater. 

But this story is even more interesting. Urban Science is an innovative company, using technologies in interesting ways that could point to Detroit's future. 

No, this isn't Silicon Valley. But not too long ago, Detroit was a major site of innovation and Anderson wants to bring that back: “One time, it was the automobile, but I don’t think Detroit will be a leader moving forward with just the automobile industry. They will have to be able to innovate and find other sources. Entrepreneurship is one of those avenues.” 

In turn, local universities are one place where entrepreneurs often get their start. So building up these sources of intellectual capital and creativity is a great way for cities to foster growth. 

The $25 million gift will establish the James and Patricia Anderson Engineering Ventures Institute at the Wayne State University College of Engineering. The institute will provide students with mentors (some of them from Urban Science) who will teach them critical entrepreneurial skills such as securing patents. The gift will also endow chairs and several graduate scholarships. 

So, to recap: The Andersons' gift isn't just a story of alumni loyalty. It also serves as a good reminder that colleges and universities impact the larger community and that philanthropy targeted towards these institutions can influence a bunch of different areas. Anderson believes it's the kind of work that might just resurrect Detroit.