Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, July 12, 2016

$500,000 donated to support students

culver headshot

Curt Culver


Katharine Lyall

Two members of the La Follette School’s Board of Visitors took advantage of a one-to-one matching gift from Ab and Nancy Nicholas to boost funding for students pursuing master’s degrees in public affairs at UW-Madison. Curt and Sue Culver pledged $200,000 – the largest single gift in La Follette School history – and Katharine Lyall donated $50,000.

The Nicholas Match doubled the gifts for a total of $500,000 in much-needed student support. Both UW-Madison alumni, the Nicholases in 2015 committed $50 million to inspire other donors to create scholarships and fellowships for UW-Madison students.

“Prospective students frequently tell us that financial aid weighs heavily in their decision for where they pursue further education,” said La Follette School Director Susan Yackee. “These generous gifts will allow us to bring highly accomplished graduate students to La Follette.”

The Curt & Sue Culver Graduate Fellowship Fund in Public Service will provide financial assistance to some of the La Follette School’s top students. The Culvers are generous donors to UW-Madison’s Athletic Department and School of Business, but the La Follette School is new territory to them.

“I have been very close to the university for a long time, but I had never heard of the La Follette School,” said Curt Culver, who received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the School of Business, where he also was a lecturer for more than 20 years.

Culver learned of the La Follette School through Sheldon and David Lubar, fellow Milwaukee-area philanthropists. Yackee was looking for people to join the La Follette School’s Board of Visitors, and Sheldon Lubar suggested Culver.

In October 2013, Culver had breakfast with Yackee and other La Follette School faculty members and was impressed with the research they were doing. He participated in his first Board of Visitors meeting two years later and shortly thereafter pledged $200,000 to the School.

“I love the nonpartisan nature of what the La Follette School does – ‘here are the facts, and here are the results’ – without taking a political slant on things,” he said. “I think that’s very healthy, and it’s the only way we can solve this country’s problems.”

Culver’s UW-Madison education clearly has served him well. His impressive resume includes 15 years as chief executive officer of the country’s largest private mortgage insurer. Culver’s first job, at the age of 10, was working at his parents’ restaurant in Sauk City. Unlike his older brother, Craig, he left the restaurant business after college.

Like his brother, though, Curt Culver became a successful business person and dedicated community member. Culver gives much of the credit to the late Jim Graskamp, after whom the UW’s Center for Real Estate is now named. Graskamp helped Culver secure scholarships and complete his bachelor’s and master’s degrees with minimal student debt, Culver recalled.
“At the time, I thought ‘this is so generous that people provide these scholarships and you don’t know them at all’, Culver recalled. “I said ‘hopefully someday I can do that’.”

Forty years later, he and his wife, Sue, can do that. So they did.

Lyall, meanwhile, saw the Nicholas Match as the right time to contribute to the Doris J. Hanson Fund for student scholarships. Hanson, who died in November 2006, was a longtime leader in Wisconsin government. She dedicated her professional life to public service, serving four Wisconsin governors and as the first woman to head the state Department of Administration.

A former La Follette School economics professor, Lyall served as president of the UW System from 1992 to 2004. During her 12-year presidency, the university system forged new partnerships with the state’s technical colleges and K-12 community, helped revitalize the university’s 13 two-year campuses, and instituted many technological innovations, including online courses and degrees.

Before joining the UW-Madison faculty as an economics professor in 1982, Lyall served in the Carter Administration as deputy assistant secretary for policy development and research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

These two significant donations prompted a discussion at the April Board of Visitors meeting about the importance of philanthropy and student aid for meeting the La Follette School’s vision for research, teaching, and public service. “Our Board of Visitors is essential to the School’s success,” Yackee said. “We are extremely grateful to all of our Board members for their help guiding and assisting the School.”