Giving back to Ole Miss

Wendell Weakley makes a generous contribution to his alma mater.

As I talk to our donors and great alumni, they all want to help. The question is, “What can I do and how can I do it?” 

- Wendell Weakley

Wendell Weakley’s lifelong relationship with the University of Mississippi began when he was a boy in Memphis, Tennessee. “I was in junior high, and my dad would take me to see the Ole Miss football team play the University of Memphis,” recalls the retired PwC partner. Weakley’s secret dream of playing for the Rebels “didn’t work out so well,” he admits. But he did wind up attending the school, and his strong performance in the accounting program earned him a starting position at the Price Waterhouse office in Memphis.

Weakley worked in Memphis from 1976 to 1996 and made partner in 1989. Over the decade that followed, he moved to Houston, then to Dallas and then to Tampa in support of PwC and its clients. “It was in Tampa that I got the call from Ole Miss,” Weakley says. That was 2006. Weakley had already been serving as chair of the Patterson School of Accountancy’s advisory council. Impressed by his work, the university’s chancellor invited Weakley to assume the position of president and CEO of the University of Mississippi Foundation, the entity with fiduciary responsibility for all private donations to the public institution—$58.7 million in fiscal year 2009–10. Weakley spoke with Keyword about his decision to focus full time on giving back to the university that had given him his start.

You’ve said, “Ole Miss is where my heart is.”
What kind of relationships did you develop there?

Weakley: Coming here, I didn’t know a lot of other students, but I quickly developed a lot of friends who have remained close over the years. A number of faculty members took an interest in my successes as a student and beyond. I really developed a sense of family relationship and commitment to the university, which seemed to be investing in me and making sure that I had the best experience that I could. Ole Miss isn’t a university where you learn your trade and move on. It’s always been part of me. You never really graduate from Ole Miss.

What led you to join the accounting program?

Weakley: I was a banking and finance major when I was a sophomore, and one of my accounting professors pulled me aside one day after our first test and said, “You need to be an accounting major. You’ve got a lot of potential.” I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. But as I finished my sophomore year, it was pretty clear that I did have some ability, and he and another professor eventually convinced me to change my major. It was a great decision.

Before getting involved with the foundation, you served on the advisory council for the university’s Patterson School of Accountancy. What was your role?

Weakley: The advisory council’s primary responsibility is to help maintain the connection between the industry and the School of Accountancy. When I was asked to chair the council, I was in Dallas, and one of the things I saw in the Dallas marketplace was a very successful internship program at Texas A&M. As you might guess, many of those interns eventually become full-time employees. Ole Miss didn’t have an internship program at the time, so the advisory council worked with the university’s staff and faculty to help them put one in place. Today, we probably put 60 or 70 students in the internship program per year, and it’s something the accounting school points to as one of its great accomplishments.

You had a very successful career at PwC. What motivated you to accept the position as president and CEO of the University of Mississippi Foundation?

Weakley: It was difficult. I was already on the board of the University of Mississippi Foundation when my predecessor announced his upcoming retirement. One day I got a call from the search committee. I was flattered, but initially I wasn’t interested. Even though I knew at some point in time I would like to retire here in Oxford, I was looking at that quite a way down the road. I was very happy with what I was doing at PwC. But I agreed to meet with the chancellor.

What changed your mind?

Weakley: Part of my concern was that I didn’t think fundraising was something I wanted to do. But as we talked about the position, I realized that it really wasn’t about fundraising, but rather donor stewardship. The chancellor described the role in a way that helped me understand how the foundation serves as just that, the university’s “foundation,” helping to make so many things possible. I thought, “I’m pretty sure I can be successful at this.” Still, I had developed a lot of relationships at PwC: I had responsibilities with five SEC clients at the Tampa practice, and I felt a responsibility to the partners and the managers I was working with. So when I decided to take the position, I asked for a year to make the transition.

What opportunity did you see in the position?

Weakley: It was a chance to come back and spend time at this place in a different capacity than the one I expected—that being teaching. I had some skill sets, in terms of working with people and building relationships, that I thought could make me successful at working with our donors. I knew I had a lot to learn, but I felt like I had some abilities to help make this foundation a better place, and that was important to me.

What are your responsibilities on a daily basis?

Weakley: We are the fiduciary of all private support that comes into the university. All contributions, whether for the endowment or for specific funds, come in through us. We acknowledge those gifts, we invest them and then we make sure that we follow the donors’ intent. It’s very important that we earn their trust every day.

How have the difficult economic environment of the past few years and the budget pressures that universities face affected your job?

Weakley: It has been challenging. One thing we see now is that donors who previously felt comfortable from an equity standpoint—that they had enough set aside for retirement and the future needs of their families—are now concerned that their equity is eroding. They feel they need to be a little more frugal in how they allocate their assets, especially for charitable purposes.

How do you deal with that issue?

Weakley: There are a couple of ways. One is that we help donors recognize that we are good stewards and that we will invest their money wisely. The other is that we tell them there are other ways to give. One is deferred and planned giving. We’ve actually grown our Deferred and Planned Giving Society almost twofold in the last five years. As I talk to our donors and great alumni, they all want to help. The question is, “What can I do and how can I do it?” So part of my job is to educate them. Cash gifts are a wonderful thing. But there are other ways that you can help, such as volunteering, serving on councils and providing job opportunities for students.

Given these economic constraints, has the university had to change its budgetary expectations?

Weakley: There certainly has been some belt tightening from an administrative standpoint, because of the market downturn and because public support for the university, meaning funds from the state, continues to go down each and every year. We’ve been fortunate, however, in that our enrollment has gone up, which really helps offset some of the downturn in private support. We had the largest two freshman classes in our history in the last two years, each up 20% from the year before.

Where are you focusing the foundation’s attention these days?

Weakley: There are two key areas that are on our radar screen right now. One is the Faculty Support Initiative. The biggest need that we see down the road is making sure that we retain and attract outstanding faculty. Adding professorships, lectureships and chairs is vitally important to make sure our next generation of students has the same opportunity to work with outstanding faculty as previous generations have had. We want to maintain a small class size and full professors teaching in the classroom.

The other area is what we call the Ole Miss Opportunity. This is a program that helps bridge the financial need gap for Mississippi students. Even with scholarships and grants, some students who would like to come to Ole Miss cannot afford to be here. The Ole Miss Opportunity gives them the chance to get an Ole Miss education.

What role has charitable giving played in your own life?

Weakley: Being a donor and establishing a scholarship endowment helped lead to my being on the foundation board and, ultimately, I became the CEO of the foundation. So obviously, charitable giving had an impact. In the last two years, I’ve also been successful at getting a number of our alumni currently working at PwC to join me in supporting and establishing a new faculty support endowment for the Ole Miss accountancy school. We’ve been fortunate to have PwC partners who didn’t even go to Ole Miss provide support to the program.

It seems that building relationships is a common factor between your work at PwC and your current work at the foundation.

Weakley: One of the things I learned at PwC, which has been very helpful to me in building relationships, is the ability to see things from other people’s perspectives. It’s important to show empathy, to understand the issue that the person across the table from you is concerned about and to help come up with a solution. I also learned at PwC that you can have difficult times—I certainly did on a number of my engagements—but if you have a strong relationship, you can work through them.