U-M Receives $50M for Creative Writing Program


ANN ARBOR — Chicago philanthropist Helen Zelldonated $50 million to the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts — the largest gift in the college’s history, the university announced today. The donation was made through the Zell Family Foundation, for which Zell serves as executive director.

The $50 million gift will permanently fund the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program for which Zell, a U-M alumna, initially committed $10 million in seed funding starting in 2004. The program, established in 1982, used Zell’s previous donation to fuel its growth and, in the past nine years, has earned recognition as one of the top writing programs in the country.

Alumni from the MFA program have published hundreds of books, and these works have achieved recognition from the New York Times, Oprah’s Book Club and nearly every other prestigious writing award. (Visit www.lsa.umich.edu/english/grad/alumni/MFA.asp for a full list).

The new gift brings Zell’s full financial contribution to the program to more than $60 million. In recognition of her support, U-M is renaming the program the Helen Zell Writers’ Program.

“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,” Zell said. “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 Creative Writing Program at U-M comprises two years of study, as well as a post-graduate year for qualifying students in the form of “Zellowships” dedicated just to writing. The program provides 22 students with more than $1 million of financial support each year through tuition waivers, stipends and health insurance.

More than 1,000 students apply to this highly competitive program each year; only 22 are selected. The curriculum includes writing workshops where students read and comment on each others’ works in progress and a visiting writer series, in which published authors hold individual consultations with students, give lectures and present readings. In addition, the program brings in agents and editors to provide students with exposure to the publishing business, as well as with a stage from which they can showcase their work.

“Helen Zell is a patron of writing at the University of Michigan,” said U-M President Mary Sue Coleman. “This is a transformative gift in the humanities, and one that builds on the Michigan literary legacy of Avery Hopwood and the Hopwood Awards.  Helen is changing the lives of writers and providing the means for important works to be written, enriching the literary landscape. Her support of fiction and poetry is a commitment to the written word, which allows readers to explore, provides intellectual awakening, and stirs the imagination.”