During the 1969 commencement exercises, graduates and their guests heard the announcement that 1931 alumnus E. Claiborne Robins had pledged to give Richmond $50 million — then the largest sum ever given to an American university by a living benefactor. The news brought cheers.

Crucially, much of the 1969 gift was undesignated, meaning Robins also gave generations of university leaders the ability to determine how these new resources could shape Richmond’s future. His gift also amplified the effects of future donors, with gifts large and small, who followed in his footsteps — as he expressly wished — by investing in the university’s potential. This five-decade flourishing of philanthropy is the foundation of today’s excellence, and its impact is evident in every corner of campus.

To mark the announcement’s 50th anniversary, we asked five of the university’s presidents to reflect on how this gift impacted their tenures and look at how it remains integral to the university today.

E. Bruce Heilman
President 1971–86; 1987–88 

During his tenure, Heilman stewarded the influx of new funds and oversaw the construction of the Gottwald Center for the Sciences, Tyler Haynes Commons, the business school, and the Robins Center basketball arena, among other initiatives.

Claiborne gave his gift because he loved the place. He didn’t have any money, came here on scholarship, and felt he got a good education here. He told me, “I saw it as one of the best opportunities for a major investment to take root and to make a difference. Nobody knows Richmond is as good as it is. I want to make it one of the finest small universities in the nation.”

When I was considering the presidency here, I told him, “Claiborne, I don’t believe anybody really understands what that will take. You have said this is seed money. You’re right. It’s just a partial payment.” I told him I would need not just the $50 million, but his engagement and involvement. He said, “I’ll guarantee you my personal support and that you’ll never regret it.”

In a real sense, he employed me as president, and we also became good friends. Six to eight months after I became president, I announced we were going to match the $50 million gift by raising another $50 million. To put that in context, the largest campaign in this university’s history had been $2 million or so. I told the board, “If we can’t raise $50 million from everyone out there to match one family’s gift, then we’re fooling ourselves.”

I can honestly say he never once crossed my line of leadership. He would occasionally challenge my thinking, but he never forced me to change my mind on anything. The man trusted me as I trusted him.

One time I told him, “If you had given your money and said ‘I’ve done my part,’ it would not have been as impactful.” His ongoing involvement is the reason we’re where we are today. People come on the campus, and they’re amazed. It’s because a man took an action from his heart and remained true to his deep commitment.

President 1988–98

During his tenure, Morrill guided the formal establishment of the School of Arts and Sciences and opened the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, the Jepson Alumni Center, and the Modlin Center for the Arts. He was the last president to work directly with Robins before his death in 1995.

Mr. Robins understood very well who we were. We were not a research university. We did not want to become an extremely large university. We simply wanted to be known as one of the best of our kind. That vision was steadfast.

In many ways, he was the university’s chief fundraiser during the years he was active. In countless cases, his giving multiplied its effects through his ability to solicit other donations. We have an exceptional tradition of major philanthropy. The Jepsons’ contributions were well over $30 million, for example. How many institutions function that way, where you’re given $50 million, and then 20 years later, you’re given another $30 million? That was part of the intent of Mr. Robins, to stimulate philanthropy in others.

For the past 50 years, the university has had the motif of possibility as part of its narrative. There is a sense here of being able to set high goals and reach them. That’s what possibility is, knowing that you can take some risks because there’s something behind you.

Claiborne Robins is the key to this sense of possibility, which is still playing itself out in everything we do. I see our ability today to enhance programming and facilities, to create a well-being center, to put up a practice facility for basketball — you can’t do that unless you have an enormous base of possibility.

All of this from a man whose humility was paramount, whose kindness was always in evidence. He never wanted to get into the specifics of decisions. When you were in his presence, you knew that here was a person of immense capability and talent, with really unfathomable generosity, but with realism about it.

Robins, who came here on scholarship, wanted his gift to encourage more alumni support.

Dr. Ronald A. Crutcher

William E. Cooper
President 1998–07

During his tenure, Cooper raised the university’s national profile, led the Transforming Bright Minds campaign, oversaw the move to the Atlantic 10 athletic conference, and instituted the university’s financial aid policy of meeting the full demonstrated need of undergraduate students.

He was motivated to make the gift because he saw that the university had the right ingredients to be outstanding. The fundamentals were sound. It just needed more resources.

When I entered the picture, the endowment accounted for about 25 cents of every dollar we spent, so there was no dollar spent by the university that was not positively influenced by that gift. It allowed us to focus on areas of need, like changing the structure of our financial aid to provide full-need aid. No one can tell you exactly how much the Robins family contributed to that policy change because of the way unrestricted giving works, but I can tell you we wouldn’t have that policy without that gift.

We could turn attention to certain issues in part because many of the fundamental things were already in place. We increased the size of the faculty and boosted salaries so that we could hire and retain the best faculty. We launched Common Ground and the Oliver Hill scholars. We began to build LEED-certified buildings like Weinstein Hall. These are all indirect effects of the gift, but they’re wonderful effects. They keep on giving every year.

It’s important that the gift was not only so large, but that it was given when it was given. It allowed us to ride a wave of endowment growth over decades.

In the end, it’s never just about the money. It’s about how the money is used to foster achievement. I credit the Robins gift with everything our team was able to accomplish.

Edward L. Ayers
President 2007–15

During his tenure, Ayers directed the campaign that fully funded the Richmond Guarantee, oversaw significant growth in undergraduate applications, launched initiatives that led to the establishment of new first-year and sophomore curricular programs, and opened the Carole Weinstein International Center and UR Downtown.

By the time I came along, the effects of the gift had become integral to the fundamental premises of the entire budget and foundational to nearly every aspect of a Richmond education. It was hard to know what was not the Robins gift. A remarkable thing about all this is that the gift was largely undesignated. Mrs. Robins did the same with her final gift from their estate when she passed away. The Robinses gave these gifts to sustain and enhance the entire university long into a future they could only imagine.

I came here in part because of the financial aid policies that were already in place — policies that were enabled by the financial foundation that the Robins gifts provided. I saw my job as extending that commitment so that Richmond’s students would look more like America. I could see that financial aid opened the doors in critical ways, but there was still more to do.

The Richmond Guarantee is an example of how great ideas built on one another and on the foundation the Robinses’ gifts provided. We knew there were students who couldn’t afford to take advantage of a summer research or internship experience, so they did not have the same opportunities as the students who could. The Guarantee is an audacious move that bridges that gap.

But the Guarantee is impossible to implement unless you have the resources to make it happen. It was made possible by extraordinary generosity of many alumni who wanted to make the Guarantee possible for students, as well as the final undesignated gift that Mrs. Robins left us. It’s rare that you can see a gift reverberating so powerfully across five presidencies.

Ronald A. Crutcher
President 2015–present

During his tenure, Crutcher has focused on strengthening UR’s national profile; launching initiatives to promote inclusivity, thriving, and wellness; engaging alumni; and overseeing planning for the Well-Being Center and the Queally Athletic Center, both now under construction.

When I came here, it was obvious to me that Richmond’s academic profile had elevated to the point that we needed an office focused on assisting students with applying for national scholarships, fellowships, and awards.

We now have an office of scholars and fellowships and are already seeing great results. For example, last year, we were one of only 11 universities recognized for being a top producer of Fulbright scholar fellowships and student fellowships. Mr. Robins had just this level of academic excellence in mind when he said he wanted us to be recognized as one of the best small, private universities in the country.

In my tenure, we have built on decades of work by President Ayers and others who saw that we had a real opportunity to become more reflective of America. What I brought to the table was a commitment to use our increasing diversity to ensure that everyone here can thrive. Representational diversity is just the first step of a larger process if you want to be a truly inclusive, intercultural community. None of this change would be possible without the gift.

As president, I have to look ahead to the next 50 to 100 years. We’ve made very serious commitments — being need-blind and meeting demonstrated need, Richmond’s Promise to Virginia, and the Richmond Guarantee, for example. We must sustain these programs and develop others.

Robins, who came here on scholarship, wanted his gift to encourage more alumni support. Our alumni are involved and dedicated in so many ways, but our yearly giving participation doesn’t match that level of dedication. However, we’re making great progress with initiatives like our first-ever giving day in April, UR Here, which drew gifts from more than 2,300 donors.

The Robins family’s example and our experience over the last 50 years have demonstrated that continued giving by dedicated alumni remains critically important as we move forward. Marking this anniversary gives us an opportunity to bring home the notion that giving at every level is the foundation on which we will continue build on this institution’s great promise.