"A Moral Requirement." The Making of a Big Gift to a State School in the Midwest

photo: Katherine Welles/shutterstock

photo: Katherine Welles/shutterstock

Our most recent installment of regional higher ed philanthropy comes to us from East Lansing, Michigan, where New York-based real estate developer Edward Minskoff gave his alma mater, Michigan State University (MSU) $30 million to complete the construction of a pavilion at the Eli Broad College of Business.

In recognition of the largest individual gift in the school’s 163-year history, interim president John Engler will recommend to the MSU Board of Trustees that the Business Pavilion be named the Edward J. Minskoff Business Pavilion.

“Michigan State is an important university and important to my past. It gave me a strong foundation, so I am privileged to be making a contribution that will help Michigan State continue to attract and prepare future business leaders,” Minskoff said.

If you’re a loyal Inside Philanthropy reader, it probably seems like regional higher ed mega-gifts are becoming a weekly occurrence. There are a myriad of reasons for this, including a surging stock market, “always on” fundraising campaigns, and the fact that, according to Tim Seiler, a fellow at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, “you’ve got a pretty big population of baby boomers who have reached the age where they have to do the required minimum distribution from their IRAs,” and gifts to universities are “just a sweet way to make a charitable contribution.”

Zoom in further, and you’ll find that the explosion of regional philanthropy is also driven by the simple fact that there are more wealthy people than ever—and perhaps as importantly, more who’ve gotten crazy rich without graduating from elite universities. Many of them haven’t forgotten their roots after making their riches in familiar urban enclaves.

Consider two recent examples. Born in Russell, Kansas, Philip Anschutz made his fortune from his base in Colorado and has been determined to boost that mountain state through big-time giving—most recently, with a $120 million gift to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in mid-August.

Around the same time, Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield, who amassed his fortune in Chicago by co-founding Dimensional Fund Advisors, made a $50 million gift to St. Louis University to finance faculty research and hire new professors. It’s the largest in the school’s 200-year history.

Now consider the biography of one Edward J. Minskoff.

A “Builder with an Artistic Sensibility”

Born in New York, Minskoff grew up in Washington, D.C., Southern California and Detroit. He chose to attend MSU because he felt then-MSU Professor Walter Adams was “the most brilliant economist around at the time.” He graduated in 1962 with a degree in economics.

“I think my education at Michigan State in the four years I spent there, and the people I met, had some significance in creating certain values for me and pushing me to the next level,” he told the Detroit News. "I give the university credit for pointing me in the right direction, so to speak.”

Minskoff provided a more playful take on his college years in an MSU Alumni Association profile, calling it “all in all, a great experience, even though no undergraduate program totally prepares you for the cruel world.”

Minskoff settled in New York City, where he became CEO and principal of the Olympia & York, overseeing acquisitions, new development, leasing and financial planning across North America. In 1987, he launched Edward J. Minskoff Equities Inc., which owns, develops and manages high-end office and residential properties as well as other real estate in urban centers.

According to MSU, his first gift to the school came in 1964, a mere two years after he graduated. Subsequent gifts included funding for MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum as well as a laboratory in the Biomedical Physical Sciences Building.

The former gift is particularly telling, as ARTnews has frequently listed Minskoff and his wife Julie among the world’s top 200 collectors, known for their interest in postwar, pop and contemporary American and European art. Speaking to the New York Sun’s Pranay Gupte in 2006, Minskoff attributed his interest in art to his mother. “Besides being a sculptor working with stone and clay, she was a collector. Perhaps that's why I'm a builder with an artistic sensibility.

(Gupte was clearly a fan. “To say that Edward Minskoff is a developer would be like saying Picasso was a painter,” he extolled.)

Minskoff provided critical strategic and operational guidance to MSU when it broke ground on its Broad museum. “Had it not been for Mr. Minskoff’s technical expertise in construction on the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, we would not have brought that project in on time and within budget,” said Melanie Foster, an MSU trustee.

MSU honored Minskoff in 2009 with an honorary doctorate in business and in 2013 with the university’s Philanthropist of the Year Award.

The Minskoffs are also supporters of health-related causes, including the NYU Medical Center, where he's a trustee, and the couple endowed a chair in pediatric oncology, prompting the New York Sun’s Gupte to ask Minskoff how he is able to balance his real estate portfolio with prodigious giving and consulting. His reply: “A lot of energy, I guess.”

Public Universities Go All-In on Philanthropy

The Business Pavilion is one of the highest priorities of MSU’s $1.5 billion Empower Extraordinary campaign, which launched in 2014 on the heels of a $25 million challenge grant from the now-retired Eli Broad and his wife Edythe to the business school that bears his name. 

Minskoff sits on the president’s Campaign Cabinet and his gift ensures the $62 million pavilion project will be funded entirely with private dollars.

MSU’s campaign comes at a time when public universities are increasingly turning to private dollars to pay bills, fund financial aid, and offset flat or declining state funding. Examples of recent big campaigns include the University of Maryland ($1.5 billion), University of Florida ($3 billion), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ($4.25 billion).

MSU provides these schools with cause for optimism. Its campaign, which wraps up on December 31, reached its goal a year ahead of schedule last September, echoing the earlier-than-expected success of another regional public school, the University of Arizona.

As for Minskoff, speaking to The Detroit News, he said that if no one mentioned the $30 million pavilion gift, “it would be fine for me,” he said. “It came from my heart and my willingness to help the university. No more, no less.”

“When people have the luck and good fortune to be successful in life,” he added, “there is a moral requirement, I think, for them to give back with the interest of helping others.”