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Alice Munro’s alma mater has plan to turn Nobel fame into new fundraising

Bryce Traister is the dean of Western University’s English Department. He is working to establish a new chair in creativity named after Alice Munro, a Western alumna.

PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

As Alice Munro's daughter, Jenny, stood in Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize in literature on her mother's behalf, the new laureate's alma mater was at the ready, hoping to capture some of the attention.

The University of Western Ontario, which Ms. Munro twice called home, announced a new $3-million academic chair in creativity bearing the revered author's name on Dec. 10, the day of the Nobel ceremony. It will recruit "a creative writer, teacher and scholar" who can be a flag-bearer for arts and humanities but also leave their mark across other disciplines.

It is also an experiment in tapping the surging goodwill around Ms. Munro's newest honour to help the university prosper from the kind of broad-based public fundraising that is growing in popularity at Canadian universities, as an alternative to seeking out well-heeled donors for six- and seven-figure gifts. Western has pledged $1.5-million to match any donations to the chair, which could come in a few dollars at a time.

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"The university, in claiming a long-term association with Alice Munro, very much wants to be able to take that relationship and have it be part of the basis for a renewal and expansion of the creative arts on campus," said Bryce Traister, chair of Western's Department of English and Writing Studies.

Ms. Munro was an undergraduate at Western from 1949 to 1951, but never graduated and left with mixed feelings. A two-year scholarship she had won ran out, leaving her without enough support from the school to continue, her eldest daughter, Sheila Munro, said. But Ms. Munro returned in 1974-75 as a writer-in-residence and accepted an honorary degree the next year. When contacted this fall, she agreed to attach her name to the new chair.

The university's English department, which merged with its writing program two years ago, was already planning to promote creativity as a theme across campus. But it wasn't until Ms. Munro's Nobel Prize was announced in October that they considered a major endowed chair "whose job is going to be to lead a broader campus conversation about how creativity is at the heart of everything we do," Dr. Traister said.

"It's not just something that the painters do or even the writers do or that the musicians do. It's something that the scientists do," he said.

The university is also nearly two thirds of the way through a $750-million fundraising campaign, and saw a chance for a "grassroots" crowdfunding campaign that would be "more broad-scale appealing and approachable," said Susana Gajic-Bruyea, the university's associate vice-president of alumni relations and development.

"It really is a participation initiative," she said. "… We have some people who have committed larger amounts, but we really would like to see the $10, $25 [gifts]."

The campaign reaped a nominal sum in its first few days – about $2,000 from 17 donors – but seems to have drawn widespread attention. The #CelebrateAlice hashtag promoting it on social media was used 562 times, retweeted on Twitter almost 4,000 times, and reached an estimated 1.5 million Twitter users while trending in Canada. Meanwhile, some of the first donations were from new, non-alumni donors.

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The precise term and details of the chair are still to be decided, but Dr. Traister believes the message it sends is timely as students and parents feel practical pressure to "choose the right thing to study."

"We as a society have come to question the value of studying the liberal arts, of studying humanities, of studying the arts and creativity," he said. But at the same time, "it's really possible to imagine that the next Alice Munro is sitting in one of our classes now."

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About the Author
Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

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