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Mercile Lee, student advocate and mentor, retires with honor

November 29, 2013 By Susannah Brooks

As Mercile Lee prepares to leave Bascom Hall for the last time as an administrator, she has eschewed recognition for her many years of dedication to the Chancellor’s and Powers-Knapp Scholarship Programs.

A small woman with a mild, pleasant demeanor that recalls her Southern origins, she would rather the spotlight remain on her students than herself.

Mercile Lee

Mercile Lee


Her gracious exterior hides a backbone strengthened by years of fighting the effects of segregation in her native Virginia. She learned to combat inequality by following her parents’ example: solving problems with thoughtful, dignified solutions that assisted other people at the same time.

“We do the work we do not because of the public recognition we receive, but because of personal commitment,” said Lee recently. “It isn’t about me. It is about focusing on opportunities to help others develop to their fullest.”  

As she transitions into retirement from her role as assistant vice provost for academic affairs, Lee has been named the recipient of the 2013 Manfred E. Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award from the Madison Downtown Rotary Club. The award, established in 1982 to honor a respected Madison rabbi, identifies individuals who have, through their voluntary efforts, made a particularly outstanding contribution to the humanitarian service in the greater Madison community.

Along with the award, the Madison Rotary Foundation presented $2,500 to an agency of the recipient’s choice. Lee selected the Chancellor’s Scholarship Program.

It’s a fitting tribute to a woman whose life has exemplified the Rotary motto: “Service Above Self.” For nearly 30 years, she has devoted her life to making sure that the students of her scholarship programs know that they are welcome, valued and encouraged at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“Each time we take pride in these scholars’ achievements, we celebrate Mercile’s determination and compassion,” says Provost Paul M. DeLuca Jr. “Finding the right students was only the beginning of her involvement in their lives; for many alumni, that involvement continues. With her quiet strength, Mercile has helped them recognize their own capabilities.”

Throughout her academic career, Lee found herself amidst history. As a student at Virginia Union University, a historically black university in Richmond, she guided a visiting Martin Luther King, Jr. on campus and began a friendship with the civil rights leader. The first in her family to attend graduate school (at Connecticut’s Hartford Seminary), she was also the first faculty member of color at Ottawa University, in Kansas, eventually chairing its Division of Education and Psychology.

“The challenge now is to maintain the support of these numbers, provide the experiences that we feel are important and to endow the program.”

Mercile Lee

At UW–Madison, Lee founded the Chancellors and Powers-Knapp Scholarship Programs in 1984 to serve students from underrepresented minority and disadvantaged backgrounds.

“I knew that something had to be done to increase the number and retention of ethnic minority students on campus,” said Lee, in 1998. “The university needed to reflect the diversity of talents, abilities and backgrounds within and among ethnic minority groups that occurred quite naturally with the majority student population. The challenge now is to maintain the support of these numbers, provide the experiences that we feel are important and to endow the program.”

At the time she made those statements, the program had met its annual goals of having at least 25 students enroll each year, with a total of 107 scholars. Today, the Chancellor’s and Powers-Knapp programs have created educational opportunities for over 1860 undergraduates, with 120 new scholars arriving on campus this past fall. Graduation rates typically exceed those of UW–Madison’s general student population. More than half of the program’s graduates have pursued graduate or professional degrees.

“Mercile has institutionalized a philosophy of tough but unconditional love, combining an unyielding belief in an individual’s potential and their ability to achieve the unexpected,” says Dominic Ledesma, the programs’ associate director. “It’s about having high expectations, not letting them settle for anything less than their best.”

In May, more than 250 former scholars paid tribute to Lee at a gathering celebrating her retirement. Many of them referred to her as a kind of “mother,” exemplifying the personal pride she took in each student’s life.

“The Swarsensky Award selection committee members were careful in distinguishing a nominee’s professional accomplishments from their volunteer services,” writes Rotary president Renee Moe. “It is noted, however, that the ‘above and beyond’ accomplishments Mercile achieved within her professional position qualified as volunteer work. As one of her colleagues states, ‘It took back-breaking leadership, comprehensive knowledge of the university’s capacity and incredible caring and nurturing of students outside normal work hours.’”

Years ago, Lee honored one of her own mentors by helping to create the Madison and Dane County Martin Luther King Coalition. And in January of this year, she became one of two recipients of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award during the celebration she helped bring to life in 1985.

Lee’s legacy will endure.

“My parents exemplified service leadership and instilled in each of their 12 children the moral responsibility to help those in need,” said Lee, in her acceptance speech for the King award. “We were challenged to develop our own potential and give back regardless of how little or much we had. I still hear my mother singing, ‘If I can help somebody along the way, then my living will not be in vain.’”