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Sam Zell's wife donates $50 million to Michigan creative writing

CharityColleges and UniversitiesEducationFinancially Distressed CompaniesHuman InterestSamuel Zell

In my book, donating money to support creative writing programs is generally a good thing. But I'm -- hmm, let's call it conflicted -- over a $50-million donation to the University of Michigan's MFA program in creative writing from Helen Zell, wife of Sam Zell.

Sam Zell took over Tribune Co. -- its properties include the L.A. Times -- in 2007. In the deal, he saddled Tribune with enormous debt at very little risk to himself; Tribune filed for bankruptcy less than a year later.

Here's how the Wall Street Journal explained it recently: "Mr. Zell has labeled the Tribune LBO 'the deal from hell.' The two-step transaction in 2007 piled an additional $8 billion in debt on the publishing and broadcasting operation, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy less than a year later. Tribune publishes the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and other newspapers as well as TV stations. Mr. Zell put only $315 million of his own money at risk in the deal."

Tribune went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2008, sparking rounds of layoffs and other cost-cutting measures at many of its properties, including the L.A. Times. It emerged from Chapter 11 on Dec. 31, 2012; what will happen next is uncertain.

"Billionaire Sam Zell," as the headlines call him, is apparently doing just fine: There appears to be an original Maigritte painting hanging over the fireplace behind his wife Helen in the photograph above. The Zells have maintained a charitable family foundation since 1987, from which the $50-million donation was made.

The Associated Press reports that the $50-million gift to the University of Michigan's MFA in creative writing "is believed to be by far the largest ever gift to such a program." Helen Zell is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she earned her bachelor's in English; her donation, however, will support creative writing, specifically, and at the graduate level.

"What I've watched happen with the introduction of the Internet and media and blogging, I almost feel like this part of our education is under siege," Helen Zell told the AP. "The ability of fiction to develop creativity, to analyze the human psyche, help you understand people — its critical. It's as important as vitamins or anything else. To me, it's the core of the intellectual health of human beings."

Michigan offers its graduate creative writing students a "Zellowship," a post-graduate year of financial support (currently $22,000) to focus on writing without the burden of further class study or teaching. The $50-million gift is intended to underwrite that program in perpetuity.

The donation also marks a substantial commitment by the Zell Family Foundation; in 2011, its largest donations were three gifts of $1 million each to Teach for America, Northwestern University's Lurie Cancer Center and the University of Michigan's ZEAL (Zell Entrepreneurship and Law) program.

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