SOU announces historic $12 million donation over 10 years from Lithia Motors CEO

Bryan DeBoer, seen here via a video feed, speaks during Wednesday's announcement of his planned donation of $12 million over 10 years to Southern Oregon University for a variety of uses, including scholarships and the foundation of a new institute.
September 15, 2022

Funding from Bryan DeBoer to fund major scholarship program and new Institute for Applied Sustainability, among other projects

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

A donation of more than $12 million from Medford-based Lithia Motors CEO Bryan DeBoer to Southern Oregon University — the largest single donation to the university on record — will fund a $5 million scholarship geared toward first-generation students and those in minority groups and creation of a new Institute for Applied Sustainability, among other initiatives, SOU President Rick Bailey announced Wednesday.

Speaking outside Hannon Library at the campus, with many gathered in person and online to watch, Bailey said the contribution over the course of the next 10 years will help fund the new institute and new scholarship opportunities, as well as a coordinated effort between SOU and Lithia Motors to host a national conference on corporate sustainability and additional sustainability programs.

As part of the more than $12 million contribution, DeBoer also set up a $1 million Lithia & GreenCars President’s Fund, aimed generally at finding new ways to solve complex problems and to support innovation and entrepreneurship.

“This gift creates the Lithia and GreenCars Momentum Fund, which will be used to support two key values that the university shares with Lithia and GreenCars: sustainability and diversity,” Bailey said.

The bulk of the donation will go to fund:

• SOU’s Lithia & GreenCars scholarship program, in the total amount of $5 million, will include direct scholarships to students as well as a leadership development program. 

• A new Institute for Applied Sustainability, in the amount of $4 million, will be staffed by four faculty members and two administrators.

• The Lithia & GreenCars President’s Fund, in the amount of $1 million, which will be used “to develop new ways for solving complex problems and support innovation and entrepreneurship.”  

Toya Cooper, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, said the scholarship is “nothing short of a miracle” in terms of who it will support.

The scholarship program will be made up of student financial aid awards and a leadership development program designed to recruit and retain first-generation and/or minority populations traditionally underrepresented in higher education, according to the university. 

“Students who benefit from this program will benefit from enhanced coaching on careers and counseling, mentoring, and internship opportunities as well,” Cooper said.

Janet Fratella, vice president of SOU and executive director of the SOU Foundation, said the contribution sets the stage for the future of the university, “one that is bold, audacious, inclusive; a university that is nationally recognized for innovation, creativity, and sustainability.”

The Institute for Applied Sustainability will be staffed by four distinguished SOU faculty members and two administrators to focus on initiatives that move the university toward a sustainable campus. 

“The institute members will work collaboratively with our partners at Lithia and GreenCar to develop innovative projects that move the needle on applied sustainability — and not just regionally, but nationally,” Bailey said.

The inaugural group to staff the institute includes:

• Bret Anderson, associate professor of economics at SOU

• Christopher Lucas, assistant professor of communication, media and cinema programs

• Pavlina McGrady, associate professor of business, coordinator of the sustainable tourism management degree program

• Jessica Piekielek, chair sociology, anthropology programs at SOU

• Vincent Smith, director of the Institute for Applied Sustainability, professor of environmental science and policy, director of the division of business, communication, and environment

•  Rebecca Walker, SOU’s director of sustainability

“They will continually bring their expertise in a range of disciplines to forward our goal to develop and demonstrate sustainability,” said Vincent Smith.

Smith, who will serve as director of the institute, shared the vision behind its creation.

“The institute will forward our work in several important ways,” Smith said. “In keeping with SOU’s commitment to serve as a resource for our region, state, nation and world, we have already begun work to develop an innovative partnership with businesses, institutions and agencies, to use SOU’s faculty, staff and students as leaders in the advancement of programs and projects that forward sustainability efforts.”

SOU, in coordination with Lithia and GreenCar, will also hold a national sustainability conference for corporations to make sustainability a guiding principal in business, Smith said.

“In conjunction with a national conference on corporate sustainability, SOU is proposing new programs, new credentials in corporate sustainability and a new MBA in sustainable business to guide the next generation of our business leaders.”

SOU also plans to create a national demonstration site for sustainability leadership, which Smith said will be housed in part at The Farm at SOU, will become a nationally recognized demonstration location for sustainable agriculture, building, pedagogy, planning, renewable energy production, water conservation, community development and fire resilience.

“Southern Oregon University’s commitment to sustainability began not as a faculty-led project, but through the leadership, curiosity, and commitment of students,” Smith told attendees. 

SOU launched the Ecology Center of the Siskiyous in 1995, more than a decade before the first degree program emerged in the same field, Smith said. Since then, Smith said thousands of students have contributed their passion and energy towards SOU’s commitment to a liveable future. 

“We now have academic programs in environmental science and policy, sustainability, sustainability leadership, sustainable food systems, environmental research, sustainable tourism management, community planning, and environmental communication,” Smith said.

As part of SOU’s goal to embrace renewable energy, the university also aims to be the first public university in the country to make all of its own electricity on our campus, Bailey said.

“We have a partner who is a ‘North Star’ in that work … and is really leading the charge nationally,” Bailey said.

Calling DeBoer an “innovative thinker” and a “visionary leader,” Bailey said Lithia Motors is now one of two Fortune 200 companies in Oregon, since DeBoer took the helm as president and CEO in 2012. 

“He has taken Lithia to a new level,” Bailey said. 

Calling donor DeBoer a friend, Bailey lamented his own golf game heading into tee time Tuesday at the Rogue Valley Country Club for the 32nd annual Lithia/Raider Club Golf Shootout. The tournament benefits SOU student-athletes, with a student-athlete serving as caddie for each team. Bailey jokingly said he planned to “make everyone else look good” at the annual tournament, where the two will team up.

DeBoer admitted to Bailey he’s only golfed nine holes all year.

The CEO said he has more of an interest in the sustainability kind of green, though he plans to lace up his shoes for the annual event on Tuesday. 

“Our world is moving this way and part of who we are as Oregonians is to be sustainable,” DeBoer said.

Lithia Motors developed GreenCar to help educate the public about sustainable transportation.

“We wanted to share and teach the world that you can make a difference in your transportation,” he said.

BeBoer also told attendees that the “journey” with SOU didn’t start with him, but with Sid DeBoer, founder of Lithia Motors, who was in attendance. Bryan DeBoer praised the involvement of his father, Sid DeBoer, with the annual golf tournament benefiting SOU student-athletes.

The tournament raised more than $500,000 in student-athlete scholarship funding last year, and a conservative estimate of a total of $2 million in student-athlete scholarship funding over the next 10 years is included in the overall estimated value of $12 million in funding announced Wednesday.

Bryan DeBoer noted that about one-quarter of his 600 employees at Lithia Motors are SOU graduates, making such a contribution even more meaningful. He is also a SOU graduate.

DeBoer emphasized that Lithia Motors wants to be part of bringing in students into Southern Oregon and to provide internships at the Medford-based company as well, when possible.

Noting SOU’s 150th anniversary of its founding roots as the Ashland Academy, DeBoer shared that Lithia Motors celebrates 75 years in 2022. The Medford-based company also started in Ashland.

“You’ve been around twice as long, but together, we’re going to exponentially grow our world together,” DeBoer said.

Plans to ‘electrify’ campus 

Bailey said Lithia Motors will also team up with SOU to “electrify” the campus, helping SOU to transition its fleet of vehicles to electric, as well as to help with the insulation of charging stations so that the university can be on the leading edge of sustainability.

“I think that the best way to propel great ideas forward is through innovative partnerships such as this one,” Bailey said. “It will also showcase us to other philanthropists, to grantmakers, to corporate partners,” he said. “Many of the great things that we do here at Southern Oregon University are known in our community but this partnership will help to showcase the talent that we have at this institution, again, on a large, national stage.”

The contribution by Lithia Motors adds to SOU’s list of philanthropic donors. 

Earlier this year, SOU received $3 million from the estate of former SOU wrestling coach Bob Riehm, which the university said at the time was its largest single contribution ever. 

The contribution endowed the men’s wrestling coach position and provides scholarships for the team’s student-athletes.

Rhiem passed away in 2020.

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

Sept. 15 update: Detail added about the other $2 million of the $12 million total not detailed in the donation funding bullet list.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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