Why I Give: Robert Mathieu

Robert MathieuRobert Mathieu, an astronomy professor currently on sabbatical, was on the Faculty Senate’s University Committee in 2008 when he and Chair Ann Hoyt led the Faculty-Staff Great People Scholarship Campaign.

He talked about the reasons behind the Great People effort and why it matters to students, faculty, staff and the campus as a whole. Faculty and staff members helped kick-start the Great People effort, generating more than $2 million in gifts and matches from the UW Credit Union and UW Foundation.

In the 2012-13 academic year, 604 students are receiving Great People Scholarships, part of financial aid packages that often include student and family contributions, grants, loans and offers of work-study employment. Even more students will receive the scholarships this year.

How did you get involved with the Faculty-Staff Great People Scholarship effort?

We were being very intentional on the University Committee about engaging the faculty in important efforts to move the campus forward. It was Ann Hoyt’s idea to look at fundraising among faculty and staff to support students in what became the Great People Scholarship Campaign.

I think the faculty on this campus care very deeply about the mission of the university. Students who by their desire and accomplishments have put themselves in the position to be admitted here should have the chance to attend. The faculty and staff, of course, are not in a position to make that happen by ourselves, but we certainly can help.

Another important goal was through the faculty showing their commitment to students, others who perhaps could also help would feel an affinity to the campus community as a whole and be a part of this.

Lastly, at the time there was much discussion in the media and in the government about the role of the university and its faculty and staff on behalf of the state. We thought this was something we could do in a very public way to show that the faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison feel a deep commitment to our state. Many of us chose to be here because we believe in the Wisconsin Idea.

That’s a long way of saying Ann had a really good idea and we went after it!

So it was no coincidence that faculty and staff members, both academic and classified, pulled together on this?

Absolutely no coincidence. We really wanted to make sure this campaign was a community effort representing the whole campus. Once the University Committee made its decision, we talked about it with the Academic  Staff Executive Committee, and academic staff got involved. We connected with classified staff leaders, and many of their members came forward. The UW Foundation committed a great deal of staff time and resources to implement the campaign. It kept gaining momentum. It was very special for all of us.

An important player in all of this was the UW Credit Union. Their very generous match, and then matched again by the UW Foundation, made it all the easier for those who wanted to be involved to really have a significant impact.

What inspired you to set up an endowed scholarship honoring your family?

My father began as a mechanic, and later became a skilled millwright. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. (Mathieu was raised in northern Delaware.) They were always extremely supportive of me, but we certainly were not affluent. I was fortunate to have a grandmother who was wise with her money during the Depression and left a trust, not a large one, but enough that I could follow my dreams. Mom and Dad could have used the trust for many purposes, but they chose to spend it on my sister’s and my educations. Even though they’re gone, I knew this scholarship would be something very special to them. It was a great pleasure to be able to honor them.

Have you heard from any recipients?

I have received short emails of thanks, which of course are a delight. Jere Fluno (a UW Foundation Board member and Astronomy Board of Visitors member) has shown me that much of the pleasure of giving is having a chance to visit with the students. Now that I’m no longer department chair, I’m looking forward to taking some time with the students, because they are what it’s all about.

Why does Great People matter?

Many UW students are working extremely hard to be able to afford to be here. I’m astonished by the number of hours some students work outside of school. I didn’t have to do that. I was lucky, I suppose, and it was a different time. I am so impressed by the students here who want a UW-Madison education so much that they’re willing to put in 20, 30, sometimes 40 hours a week to be able to pay for it.

At the same time, working 30 or 40 hours a week while trying to get that education is a hindrance to getting the most out of the experience. If I can help them, even if in only a small way, that’s more than worth it. The students have made their commitment.  If I can make their burden a little lighter, what could be better?