Billionaire Rich DeVos is GVSU’s largest donor at $36M

Originally posted in MLive on February 4, 2016

In the past three decades, Rich DeVos and his family have donated $36 million to Grand Valley State University.

The extent of the Michigan billionaire’s financial support of the Grand Rapids-area public university is being revealed for the first time.

John Truscott, a family spokesman, told MLive/The Grand Rapids Press the DeVos family is opening up about its philanthropy to encourage generosity in others.

DeVos’ contributions are the largest donation to GVSU from a single private source, the university confirmed.

Rich DeVos, who jokingly refers to himself as a loyal GVSU “un-alum,” has done more than donate millions to the public university, he has encouraged his wealthy friends to do the same.

“That’s why we are the regional powerhouse we are today from that small little college in the cornfield started by Bill Seidman 50 years ago,” said GVSU President Tom Haas. “He grabbed that and was able to galvanize all that with us.”

It was DeVos who said the university needed to expand beyond it sprawling Allendale campus to have a downtown Grand Rapids presence. A proposed $50 million “academic village” would benefit students, fuel downtown development and make West Michigan better, he believed.

DeVos gave $7.5 million for the Richard M. DeVos Center on the University’s Pew Campus along West Fulton Street at the Grand River — half the local match needed to pull in $35 million from the state.

“You’ve got the cultural aspects of downtown, the business part, the entertainment, and now we’re adding education,” DeVos told The Grand Rapids Press in 1997. “Put all those together and you have a nice city.”

DeVos has long supported Christian colleges, giving millions to Hope College in Holland where his daughter Cheri graduated, and Calvin College in Grand Rapids where he attended briefly, and his wife, Helen, is an alumna.

In recent years, two of DeVos’ grandchildren have attended the university, Haas said.

GVSU is close to his heart because it is about community, say those who know him. He has invested decades into the university, first serving a six-year appointment on its governing board, and later heading university’s foundation board for 24 years until September when he stepped down.

“He really wanted to see us thrive,” Haas said.

From the beginning, DeVos saw Grand Valley as a community asset, a place where people could get the education they needed to improve themselves professionally, said Arend “Don” Lubbers, former longtime president of GVSU.

By most measurements, GVSU is a success. It has a 82 percent retention rate, and hit an all-time enrollment record of 25,094 students last year, making it the fourth largest public university in the state.

Working with three GVSU presidents over three decades, DeVos has propelled major projects forward by recruiting other philanthropists to share the private sector costs.

He and his wife, Helen, were the lead donors on the $52.3 million Richard M. DeVos Center that opened in 2000 and expanded in 2008; the $52.2 million Cook DeVos Center for Health Sciences that opened in 2003, and the $42.6 million L. William Seidman Center in 2013.

DeVos approached the late philanthropist Peter Cook in the early 2000s to be a lead donor with him on the 215,000-square-foot Cook DeVos Center that opened in 2003 on Michigan Street NE. It was among the first health care buildings along Grand Rapids’ now booming Medical Mile.

At the time, the project was the largest private fundraising campaign undertaken by the university since opening its Pew Campus downtown.

Each of the building’s five stories is named for a major contributor: Fred and Lena Meijer, John Batts, Leslie Tassell and the Jay and Betty Van Andel Foundation, who each contributed $1 million to the project. A floor was also named for Jim and Donna Brooks, who donated $500,000 toward the building and another $500,000 for scholarships.

DeVos’ pitch to his fellow philanthropists was this: GVSU’s building was important to West Michigan and growing Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile, said Mark Murray, GVSU president at the time.

“He leads by example and he always saw the big purpose,” Murray said. “It wasn’t just about a building, it was about what the future of the students, and what they could do in the community.”

Lubbers, Murray and now Haas have turned to DeVos for strategy discussions and how to approach major fundraising goals.

DeVos relished making the ask of his wealthy friends.

Lubbers likes to tell the story of how the Amway billionaire once complimented Leslie Tassell saying, “he looked like a million dollars,” which generated a donation of that amount.

But DeVos’ close ties haven’t come without critics. Lubbers took heat in 2000 for reversing his position on offering health care benefits to gay partners of university employees after DeVos told him he should “obey the law of the land.”

Eight years later, the GVSU board of trustees approved benefits for unmarried partners of its employees, which covered gay couples. The university denied it was trying to get around a state law that banned same-sex benefits before it was struck down by the Supreme Court earlier this year.

DeVos’ conservative stand on the issue conflicted with that of his middle son, Dan DeVos, who then was serving as vice-chairman of the board of Northern Michigan University. The younger DeVos backed the extension of health benefits to same-sex partners of faculty members around the same time.

“On balance, I think it’s part of what’s necessary, and the appropriate thing to do for NMU to continue meeting our mission at Marquette,” said the younger DeVos to The Grand Rapids Press in 2000.

Dan DeVos has now focused his efforts on GVSU. He and his wife, Pamella, serve as vice-chair of the 104-member foundation board, taking the spot of Jim and Donna Brooks, who have moved into Rich DeVos’ former role.

Years ago, DeVos personally recruited the Holland philanthropists to be on the foundation board.

“He is a friend maker,” Lubbers said of DeVos. “He likes people. He likes to relate to people.”

Image courtesy of MLive.