Record-setting gift giving continues with $23 million for Kalamazoo College

Imagine Kalamazoo as a place where leaders in social justice are made.

The Arcus Foundation has awarded a $23 million grant to Kalamazoo College to make that possibility a reality.

The grant from the foundation, which is dedicated to advancing social justice and conservation issues, will endow the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, going up on the Kalamazoo College campus this year.

The $23 million grant is largest donation in the college’s 179 years and one college officials say is among the largest given for a social justice purpose to any undergraduate institution in the United States.

The Jan. 17 announcement came after two weeks of hints from the school that something big was in the works. When time came for the announcement, students and members of the community filled the balloon bedecked Hick Center. The K Jazz Quintet kept them entertained as dignitaries gathered. And mingling in the crowd were those wearing orange T-shirts bearing the slogan "It’s Big."

This is the third time in 10 months that a local resident has made a huge donation to institutes of higher education in Kalamazoo. In March 2011 an anonymous donor contributed $100 million to help fund Western Michigan University’s School of Medicine and in November a $2 million donation was made to WMU’s occupational therapy program.

Kalamazoo College President Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran told the students assembled and those watching by live stream for the latest announcement that although the Arcus Center is being built on campus, the college had to demonstrate that it could provide the programming expected before the endowment for the center would be made. Many people planned and nurtured the program that has emerged, she said.

“We had to prove that K-College is up to the task. That a social justice center would work on a small liberal arts college campus in the Midwest. I am proud to say, we did it!" Wilson-Oyelaran said.

The "big news" is the breadth of what the endowment will allow the college to undertake.

It will fund leadership development programming, student scholarships and internships, two endowed professorships, and faculty and staff fellowships. There will be public lectures and conferences, local and global partnerships and residencies for social justice scholars and practitioners.

A program that will have a transformative effect on the campus, the community and beyond already is being crafted, the president said.

The program is a good fit for Kalamazoo College as the Arcus Center’s mission is consistent with the college’s history, liberal arts tradition, and mission to develop enlightened leaders, Wilson-Oyelaran said. "The Arcus Center builds on the College’s strengths in the area of academics, career development, international engagement, and independent study--all elements of each 'K' student’s distinctive K-Plan."

It also is in keeping with the school’s history as a leader in establishing a co-educational school in the mid-1800s when that was rare and also a gathering place for thought leaders, including many abolitionists, a tradition to bring in thought leaders that continues today.

The Arcus Foundation was founded by Jon Stryker, whose family founded the medical device company that bears its name. Jon Stryker, a Kalamazoo College alumnus and trustee, could not attend the announcement, although Wilson-Oyelaran said she did everything but "stand on my head" in an attempt to make it happen.

Wilson-Oyelaran repeatedly thanked the Arcus Foundation and Jon Stryker for their generosity to the school and encouraged students in the Hicks Center to give a "shout out" to Stryker whereever he might be to show their appreciation of the record-setting gift.

The donation is one of a number the Arcus Foundation and Jon Stryker have made to Kalamazoo College:

In 2009, the Foundation provided a $200,000 planning grant and a $2.1 million project grant to help launch the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership.

It provided a $5.6 million grant in 2008 to fund tuition and programming support for 50 students from Los Angeles public schools to attend "K" through the Posse Foundation, and a $5 million grant in 2001 to support the "K" study abroad program.

When the college breaks ground for the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, Jon Stryker will personally finance that effort, Wilson-Oyelaran said.

Co-directors Jaime M. Grant, executive director, and Lisa Brock, academic director took turns as they made their remarks regarding the grant. And three students, Lee Caldwell, Meredith Loomis Quinlan and Colin Lauderdale presented a compilation of remarks from students regarding what the Arcus Center program has meant to them. The students said they learned social justice is about more than race. It also taught them to appreciate "those who share my belief system and those who do not and respect me anyway."

The college president went on to say the work done by the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership complements the school's commitment to students: Kalamazoo College  does more in four years so students can do more in a lifetime.

"What is our vision for a just world, Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo College?" Wilson-Oyelaran asked. Then she responded, "That we can create a community that we can all be proud of; we can build on K’s distinctive legacy; that we can honor and dignify each life. The Arcus Center is dedicated to educating and nurturing the social justice leader in all of us. We can build on this together."

Kathy Jennings is the Editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by John Lacko for Kalamazoo College

Students assemble to hear the announcement in the Arcus Atrium of the Hick Center.

Kalamazoo College President Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran announces the largest grant to the college in its history.

Colin Luaderdale, Meredith Loomis Quinlan and Lee Caldwell talk about the Arcus Center.