New entity will enshrine Mercile Lee’s founding role in prominent scholarships

November 30, 2018 By Doug Erickson
Photo: Dignitaries unveiling plaque

Chancellor Rebecca Blank and Chief Diversity Officer Patrick Sims unveiled a replica of a plaque that will permanently commemorate the new Mercile J. Lee Scholars Program. All ceremony photos by Andy Manis

The University of Wisconsin–Madison will solidify the legacy of the late Mercile J. Lee by incorporating her name into the two life-changing scholarship initiatives she established and directed for decades.

Photo of Mercile Lee

Mercile Lee Photo: Bryce Richter

The Mercile J. Lee Scholars Program will be the new overarching name for the Chancellor’s and Powers-Knapp scholarship programs. The two programs will retain their distinct names; students from both will now be known collectively as Mercile J. Lee Scholars.

Lee, who retired in 2013 as assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs, died Oct. 25 at age 87.

The naming honor was announced Thursday at an often emotional ceremony at the Edgewater Hotel attended by about 350 people, many of them former scholarship recipients. They praised Lee’s leadership, vision and mentoring.

“She never wanted us to stop investing in ourselves or each other as a community of scholars,” Dominic Ledesma, a Powers-Knapp Scholar and 2004 graduate, told the crowd. “The unconditional support she offered, coupled with high expectations and structured measures of accountability, underlies our definition of tough love — the love Mercile provided for all of her scholars.”

The ceremony had been planned prior to Lee’s death as an opportunity to celebrate her legacy in her presence. The naming honor was to have been a surprise to her.

Lee established the Chancellor’s Scholarship Program in 1984 and the Powers Scholarship Program (later to become Powers-Knapp) in 1989.

Both programs are merit-based and seek to attract academically outstanding students from groups that historically have been underrepresented in higher education. When an interviewer once asked Lee what inspired her to create the Chancellor’s Scholarship Program, she responded, “I knew something had to be done.”

“The unconditional support she offered, coupled with high expectations and structured measures of accountability, underlies our definition of tough love — the love Mercile provided for all of her scholars.”

Dominic Ledesma

Chancellor Rebecca Blank referenced Lee’s response at Thursday’s ceremony.

“Those seven simple words say everything about Mercile Lee — about her deep commitment to serving others, about the energy that propelled her forward and inspired so many around her, and about her understanding that big changes begin with one person committed to making a difference,” Blank said.

Together, the programs have created educational opportunities for more than 2,600 undergraduates. Today, there are more than 525 Chancellor’s and Powers-Knapp Scholars on campus, 134 of them new this fall.

“For over 30 years she was a driving force that created access and educational opportunities for hundreds of talented high-achieving underrepresented students,” said Patrick Sims, deputy vice chancellor and chief diversity officer. “True to the values of equality and justice, Mercile built the Chancellor’s Scholars and Powers-Knapp programs to be among the most lauded scholarship and mentoring programs in the country.”

“For over 30 years she was a driving force that created access and educational opportunities for hundreds of talented high-achieving underrepresented students.”

Patrick Sims

Also at Thursday’s ceremony, Chancellor Blank announced a major gift from Phill and Elizabeth Gross. The couple have long supported programs that help bring a college degree within reach for talented young people. Their latest gift will support and expand the Chancellor’s Scholarship Program.

“This gift will ensure that the Mercile J. Lee Scholars Program continues to grow and thrive for generations to come,” Blank said.

Phill Gross, a UW–Madison alumnus, said he and his wife met Lee many years ago and were immediately impressed with her ability to mentor and nurture so many students at one time.

“It didn’t matter where they came from, or what their race was, or what their family background was like; we knew Mercile would improve their standing and the standing of their future generations by making sure they were the best they could possibly be,” he said Thursday.

“Mercile taught me so much about how to live a life of giving through hard work and humility. In that sense, I, too, am one of her students.

Phill Gross 

Gross earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and business from UW–Madison in 1982 and an MBA the following year, also from the university. He is a co-founder and managing director of Adage Capital Management in Boston.

Gross often checked in with Lee on his trips to Madison. He last visited her during the university’s homecoming festivities, just four days before her death.

“Mercile taught me so much about how to live a life of giving through hard work and humility,” he said. “In that sense, I, too, am one of her students. I will be indebted to her forever for that. Like all of her mentees, I still feel her quiet energy pushing and prodding me to do better on this day and every day.”

At the end of his remarks, Robb Lee had everyone stand, clasp each other’s hands, and say, “Chancellor’s and Powers-Knapp Scholars: Committed to a better future for all.”

The final speaker was Lee’s son Robb, who thanked everyone for their warm reflections, kind words and generosity.

He said people have been asking him what it was like to be Mercile Lee’s son.

“She had the same time for me as she had for all of you, and I think that’s the piece that I’m most overwhelmed by,” he said. “I could call her at any time, irrespective of all these things that I’ve heard that she’s done — and I didn’t know a lot of these things. … I can’t thank you enough for allowing her to still be a mom to me and a mom to all of you as well.”

Many speakers urged the crowd to pay Lee’s legacy forward. People were encouraged to write on blank cards on each table specifically how they planned to do that. The cards will be mailed back to each person in six months as a reminder and a check.

At the end of his remarks, Robb Lee had everyone stand, clasp each other’s hands, and say, “Chancellor’s and Powers-Knapp Scholars: Committed to a better future for all.”

In a surprise coda that brought the crowd to its feet, the program ended with about 150 current Chancellor’s and Powers-Knapp Scholars streaming through the doors and lining the front and sides of the ballroom.