Businessman David W. Wilson made known in a big way that ethics are really important to him.
The 1970 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa gave $25 million to his alma mater — the largest-ever gift in the history of the institution — to help expand the university’s business ethics academic offerings and create a scholarship fund for future Panthers in need.
The Traer native graduated from UNI with a degree in philosophy and a minor in business before the 1981 founding of the institution’s college of business. But because of his massive donation, officials have decided that the university’s business school will now be the “David W. Wilson College of Business” — the first time UNI has named one of its schools after someone.
Previously, the largest single gift to the university was $15 million, a gift from Richard Jacobson made in 2013 as part of the Focus on Students campaign, according to information provided by UNI.
A few hundred from the university community celebrated on a sunny, cool day out in front of the business college. Purple confetti flew into the air and a large stage was set up, where Wilson and his wife, Holly, joined UNI officials to give remarks.
“We chose this time to make the additional investment in ethics-based business curriculum at UNI because government and the media seem to blame business for all the world’s economic problems,” Wilson said. “Ethical capitalism needs all the help it can get. We believe that this is the perfect time to make this gift to present a philosophical defense of capitalism.”
“Wilson” was written out on the lawn in the form of large purple bubble letters. And one could hear the excitement in the voice of his sister-in-law, Leslie Wilson, dean of the College of Business, who was on stage and raised her arms upon the confetti being released into the air.
David Wilson had always enjoyed giving back with his time, like volunteering to drive for Meals on Wheels, he told the media before the event.
But a lot has happened since growing up on a farm outside of Traer with “nothing.” His business, Orange, California-based Wilson Automotive, has taken off and grown to 18 automotive dealerships and related companies, with more than 2,500 employees.
Now that his time is largely taken, Wilson’s often been asked to help with his resources and, thus, has been visited by university presidents over the years.
The 1966 graduate of North Tama Community High School reached the summit at the University of Northern Iowa, but had previously given $1 million to establish the “David W. Wilson Chair of Business Ethics.”
“David does right because he’s paying attention to the customer,” said Leslie Wilson. “He’s paying attention to his employees, and he’s paying attention to the communities where his successful businesses reside in giving back, doing right for the success of the long term.”
According to Leslie Wilson, the university’s first step with her brother-in-law’s donation will be hiring an ethicist for the fall of 2024. The college has two courses teaching business ethics, and others that touch on ethics in partnership with the university’s department of religion and philosophy, and many offerings outside the classroom.
The university now will be able to grow its academic offerings. Those specifics are still being worked out, said Leslie Wilson.
The funds also establish the David W. Wilson Scholars Endowed Fund, which will be used to provide scholarship support for at least one student at the start of the 2024-25 school year and in perpetuity.
The scholarship will benefit only students from a Tama County high school. They must demonstrate financial need to qualify. The intent is that eventually four “Wilson Scholars” will be funded annually.
“I’m at a point in my life now where I’m 75 years old,” David Wilson said in a previous interview. “I’m going to run out of time before I run out of money.”
“Ethical and automobile dealer seemed to be mutually exclusive when I was kid. They didn’t have the world’s greatest reputation. I set out trying to change that. Most the car dealers I know are wonderful people and I think the reputation of that industry has changed over the years,” he added.
Wilson also worked with the UNI Foundation to structure his contribution as a challenge gift in the hopes of spurring additional support for the university’s Our Tomorrow campaign. Officials announced the university has raised $243 of the $250 million goal. The expectation is that the Panther faithful will blow past that mark.
“This is a grand gift to help the college of business but also the university as a whole,” said Sandy Stevens of Glen Ellyn, Illinois afterwards.
“His donation will help guide the next generation of leaders,” she said.