The University Record, October 18, 1999

College, U thank Taubman for ‘transformative’ gift

By Jane R. Elgass

From left, Dean Douglas S. Kelbaugh; A. Alfred Taubman and his wife, Judy; and President Lee C. Bollinger. Photos by Bob Kalmbach
That Indian Summer didn’t hang on quite long enough was not news to participants in the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Planning Celebration and Naming Ceremony Oct. 13, but the wet, stormy weather didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of those who attended the program.

Shielded by a temporary tent whose fabric slapped against steel girders in high wind gusts, students, faculty and staff celebrated A. Alfred Taubman’s $30 million “transformative” gift to the College with speeches and a long standing ovation for a donor whose name is a familiar one on campus.

“This is a historic milestone and we are here to celebrate the donor and the gift,” said Dean Douglas S. Kelbaugh, “a gift that will enable the College to re-envision and re-invent itself. That is easier said than done,” Kelbaugh noted, in an institution that honors venerable traditions and is rooted in both time and location, but the College is up to the challenge.

Taubman’s gift is greater than all preceding gifts combined since the College began offering classes 123 years ago. “It’s such a big gift, it’s just raining dollars,” Kelbaugh quipped as a pounding wave of raindrops pelted the tent. “It is millennial in magnitude and in spirit, as there is no formal mandate on its use.” The trust represented by the gift, he added, “makes implicit that we must continue to do what we do but do it better.”

The gift carries triple significance, the dean explained: first as the largest gift to a college of architecture; second as matching the previously largest gift to the U-M (from William Davidson), coming at a time of greater dependence on private support; and third for the belief that the academic discipline can make a difference in the profession.

Also speaking at the program were architect James Stewart Polshek (see accompanying article), students Bridget E. Lewakowski of the undergraduate architecture program and Dominick A. Argumedo of the master of urban planning program, Provost Nancy Cantor and President Lee C. Bollinger.

Lewakowski learned of the gift while studying in Prague during the summer, and noted that scholarships had made it possible for some of the students to participate in the trip.

She spoke of the “charged” e-mail conversation among members of the College about a possible gift for Taubman, noting that one proposing a multidisciplinary redesign of the median between the Art and Architecture Building and Pierpont Commons was the most striking to her.

“The naming [of the College] sets the tone for our future,” she said. “It is a big investment in our little community. We must continue to look outward and invest in our own communities. We should consider our work investments in our communities in and out of the United States.

“We thank you for the precedent this gift sets for actions by the college and its graduates.”

Argumedo, the son of U-M alumni, learned the “Victors” at a young age, keying in on the “leaders and best” refrain.

The University has many distinguished alumni who have made substantial contributions in a variety of fields, he noted, but “this gift is significant because it will be used for people and ideas. It adds to the essence of what makes the University renowned. The faculty and students appreciate that the gift will go to the ‘soul’ of the College.”

The gift, he added, will allow the College to “continue in the great tradition of being the leaders and best.”

Taubman’s gift “will make a lasting mark on the academic landscape of the University and there is no question that it will transform the College,” Cantor said. “It signifies a special trust in those here now and in the future,” and its unrestricted nature “is the clearest possible statement of support” the University can receive.

The timing of the gift “couldn’t be better,” Cantor also noted, citing the renewed emphasis on the arts and humanities and the importance of the many elements on campus that contribute to its shared public cultures.

“We are aware of our responsibility in accepting the gift and will do all that is possible to make you [Taubman] proud,” she said.

In commenting on the decision-making process that preceded acceptance of a gift that would name an academic unit, Bollinger noted that such gifts must be of “transformative magnitude and represent an appropriate linkage of the person to the institution.”

The president also commented on Taubman as a person with strong ties to the University who, over the past several years, also has come to be a close friend.

“I am impressed by how knowledgeable Al is about architecture and art,” he said, adding that Taubman’s homes are like mini Metropolitan Museums of Art.

(In addition to being founder and chairman of The Taubman Company, one of the country’s leading real estate developers and operators, Taubman is majority shareholder and chairman of Sotheby’s, the world’s oldest and leading auction house.)

Taubman, he said, also likes to debunk things and to chide, and has told Bollinger he likes to meddle. But, he told the president, in expressing his trust in the University, “I’ll never meddle in the University or College with this gift.”

Citing Taubman’s penchant for attending to details, Bollinger recounted attending part of a meeting to review signage for Sotheby’s in New York, during which Taubman commented on the shape and shadowing of the letters and the “drape” of flags on the signs, among other elements. “This is a sign of his extraordinary intellect and his aesthetic sensibilities,” Bollinger said.

“There is an important simplicity to Al’s vision of things,” Bollinger added, “particularly as the University struggles with its own configuration. He has said, ‘Things happen when people are in close proximity.’ This is a truth we’d do well to remember.”

Bollinger also cited Taubman’s capacity for friendship and his high standards. “We must reflect on our own standards,” the president said, “our willingness to do as well as we possibly can over the next decade. We must make this happen. We must embrace the highest standards.”

For information on how the gift will be used, see the Record on the Web at

See accompanying articles on Taubman's speech and guest speaker James Stewart Polshek.