Levines donate $13 million more to scholarship program at UNC Charlotte

Sandra and Leon Levine are so impressed with the UNC Charlotte students who have merit scholarships they fund that on Wednesday the Charlotte philanthropists committed $13 million more to renew – and expand – the program at least through 2024.

To date, it is the university’s largest private gift, school officials said. All told, the Levines have committed $18 million from their family foundation to the Levine Scholars Program that provides students with a full ride – along with other perks – to study at UNCC for four years. The scholarship is worth $105,000 per in-state student and $155,000 for out-of-staters, similar to the venerable Morehead-Cain scholarships at UNC Chapel Hill and Park scholarships at N.C. State.

In 2016, the Levine program will expand to provide scholarships to 20 students a year, up from 15; and by 2020, 80 Levine Scholars will roam the UNCC campus, Chancellor Phil Dubois announced at a news conference Wednesday.

Dubois also unveiled plans for a new 425-bed, $49 million residence hall that will be named for the Levines. It will house Levine Scholars and students in the honors program, along with administrative offices and seminar rooms for both programs.

The Sandra and Leon Levine Hall will be built in a prominent spot near the main campus entrance off N.C. 49 and begin housing students by fall 2016, Dubois said. It will contain apartments for some junior and senior Levine Scholars to mentor the younger scholars, he said.

“The Levines’ generosity, as expressed in the Levine Scholars Program, has had a clear and immediate impact on our campus and will pay through the achievements of our graduates important dividends to our city and region for years to come,” Dubois said.

That was the Levines’ hope when they seeded the program in 2009 with a $9.3 million gift over 10 years to draw the best and brightest students and develop public service leaders.

Wednesday, both said the program had exceeded their expectations – the reason they’re renewing the program two years early.

Sandra Levine said the first graduating class of Levine Scholars last May set the standard. “Their contributions to the community were just over the top of what we could have expected, and we were thrilled about that,” she said in an interview. “And secondly, seeing the work the university put into the program and meeting the people involved in the program, and knowing that this is their passion, was very compelling.

“We couldn’t help but want to continue that work.”

Leon Levine, founder of Matthews-based Family Dollar, said he and Sandra didn’t just provide the money for the scholarships, but they “mixed” with the scholars, taking them to Panthers football games and on a beach trip and inviting them to cultural events and to their home for a yearly dinner.

“We didn’t want to just think about them from time to time, we wanted to build a relationship with them,” he said.

Student work compelling

The scholarship covers the cost of tuition and all fees, housing and meals, a laptop computer and summer experiences. An additional $8,000 is provided to each student to support community service work during school.

Collectively, the first graduating class members ended their undergraduate careers with a 3.75 GPA out of 4. They studied in 30 different countries, including Spain, Australia, Iceland, Bolivia and Costa Rica.

They were taught to give back by faculty, administrators and the Levines and given the resources to do so.

Each month, they prepared and served meals at The Ronald McDonald House of Charlotte to families struggling with sick children. They created a 12-hour dance marathon that raised more than $35,000 for Charlotte’s Levine Children’s Hospital. They mentored students at James Martin Middle School. One scholar used a service grant to build an aquaponics system – that grows fish and plants – at an urban farm behind Garinger High School. Another scholar gave abused or neglected children a voice as a guardian ad litem.

Among the current 16 freshmen scholars, the program’s fifth class, 11 are from North Carolina and the other five are from as far away as Minnesota and Pennsylvania. None are from Mecklenburg County.

Leon Levine said he’s found the work of the scholars to be one of the most compelling parts of the program. The students, he said, continue to use their resources “with imagination” to get involved in the Charlotte region.

Raising UNCC’s stature

At one time one of the richest men in America, Levine never finished college but has donated much of his family foundation’s assets to education and research.

When that first class of Levine Scholars was announced in 2010, Levine said he hoped the program would help raise the university’s stature. His wife said their gift was a good investment not only for UNCC, but for the Charlotte region.

Dubois said Wednesday the scholarships have done both.

Tom Lawrence, executive director of the Levines’ foundation, said Wednesday that the foundation has donated more than $200 million since 2000, but the Levine scholarships “stands the tallest” among grants. He said the foundation has considered forming an endowment for the scholarship program, but for now the Levines want to evaluate and renew the program every five years.

“At this stage we can only imagine the contributions these students will make,” Lawrence said. “But I assure you they will be significant, meaningful and life-changing for them and countless others. We know this program is one that will truly have a tremendous and lasting impact.”