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UCLA Alumni Couple Pledges $10 Million to Ethnic Studies Centers

Two UCLA alumni have pledged $10 million over a five-year period to their alma mater. The money will go toward creating endowed chairs and supporting research opportunities at the school’s Institute of American Cultures (IAC) and its four ethnic studies research centers.Morgan and Helen ChuMorgan and Helen ChuKaren Umemoto/UCLA Asian American Studies Center

This pledge – the largest gift made to the institute since its founding in 1969 – came from Morgan and Helen Chu, two UCLA graduates who have historic ties to the university and the institute’s centers. In the late 1960s, the two were student activists who engaged in collective, multiracial student protests that resulted in the creation of the ethnic studies centers themselves.

“From the very beginning, we thought the notion, the concept, the feeling about creating ethnic studies centers at that point in time would be a good thing for education, research, and teaching,” said Morgan Chu. “And over the years, we saw that it was a very good thing.

“It was like planting a seed, not to say that we were the sole seed planters, because there were many people – many students, some faculty, and others – planting seeds, fertilizing them, helping them grow.”

The IAC and its four centers – the Asian American Studies Center, the American Indian Studies Center, the Chicano Studies Research Center, and the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies – offer students and faculty access to research, fellowships, civic engagement, and scholarships, according to its website.

According to UCLA, Helen later pursued a long career as an elementary school teacher, while Morgan continued in higher ed, earning several degrees from UCLA, in addition to an M.S.L. from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. He gained prominence as a trial and intellectual property lawyer.

The two have made several other gifts to UCLA over the years, leading to a 2001 scholarship fund in their name, as well as an endowed director’s chair for IAC’s Asian American Studies Center.

This most recent gift builds on their previous contribution and aims to endow director's chairs at the three other IAC centers, as well as an academic chair at the Asian American Studies Center.

As it stands now, the four centers all have directors but three are without endowed director’s chairs. Though, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies does have an endowed academic chair, said IAC Vice Provost Dr. David Yoo, a professor of Asian American studies and history at UCLA.

“For faculty members, holding an endowed chair is often considered the highest honor that you can have as a professor,” Yoo said. “It's a great honor to the holder, but it's also a great honor to the unit that has the endowed chairs too.”

UCLA will decide who the new chairs will be once these new developments are approved by the university. Dr. Shannon Speed, the inaugural Paula Gunn Allen Chair in Gender Studies and director of IAC’s American Indian Studies Center, said she anticipated that the process will be complete later this year.

The prestigious title of endowed chair comes with resources and the liberty to choose what to spend the money on, Morgan Chu said.

"The idea of endowing chairs would be to allow the leadership of the institute and the individual centers to decide what they thought was the best course of action and how to invest for the short, medium, and long-term future,” he said. “By endowing the chairs, it isn't for a specific purpose. The centers can use the money as they see fit."

This money can be put towards a number of resource-intensive projects and programming, said Speed, a citizen of the Chickasaw nation. Establishing an endowed chair position also serves as a valuable recruiting tool for faculty members, she added.

"This gift is a game-changer for the centers in an environment in higher education in which support for all kinds of projects, research, centers, and institutes is increasingly coming from the private sector and not from the state itself,” Speed said. “Endowments become critical to the futurity of our work and our centers.”

There will also be a fund to support research, Yoo said. 

The couple's substantial donation represents increased stability and predictability for the Institute, its centers, and its ongoing work, Yoo said. This year marks the 55th anniversary for the IAC, and the work it does is needed now just as much as it was back in 1969, he said.

"The significance of the gift is that it provides a foundation of support that essentially is in perpetuity,” he said. “The gifts will be able to provide a foundation of funding that will allow the centers to really build upon that foundation to then use it to really fund projects, support students, and do a range of things.”

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