Villanova law school gets $25M gift and new name

Charles Widger. His gift is the second largest in 'Nova history.
Charles Widger. His gift is the second largest in 'Nova history.
Posted: January 22, 2016

Villanova University will rename its School of Law for a 1973 alumnus who went on to a career in investment management, marking the first time that one of the university's schools will carry the name of a donor.

Charles "Chuck" Widger, founder and executive chairman of Brinker Capital, a Berwyn investment management firm, gave the school $25 million, the second-largest donation in Villanova's history, the university announced Wednesday.

The money is largely to be used for scholarships for students who show leadership skills and an interest in both business and law - worlds that Widger has bridged. The funds also will endow a professor who will be based in the School of Law but work across disciplines and create an "innovation fund" for new academic programs, school officials said.

"Giving to the law school has been on a tremendous upward momentum, and we see Chuck's gift as the capstone that will further propel us forward," said John Gotanda, dean of the law school, to be known as the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

The gift comes as many law schools around the country have coped with declining enrollment. It also gives Villanova's law school a boost as it overcomes a 2011 grade-inflation scandal that led to the departure of some administrators.

Villanova's law school enrolls 492 students, down from 725 in 2011.

But the school's applications for the Class of 2016 were up 16 percent this year, compared with a 4 percent decline in law-school applications nationally, Gotanda noted.

Widger, who shifted into investment management more than 30 years ago after practicing law, said he wanted to give to the law school in recognition of its "strong culture," "sound strategy," and "high-quality people."

He also cited the school's commitment to adapt its programs, including adding business courses and professional development skills.

"We're going to be making changes to be current and thereby help kids get good jobs and do well," said Widger, 70, of Berwyn. "I think that graduating well-qualified lawyers who understand how the intersection of law and business works in this country is of great value."

Several other area law schools bear the names of major donors: Thomas R. Kline at Drexel University and James E. Beasley at Temple University. And the law school building at Pennsylvania State University is named for Lewis Katz, the late philanthropist and co-owner of The Inquirer.

At Villanova, Jim Davis, a 1981 alum, gave the school $50 million - its largest gift - in 2013 for the business school but did not request that his name be on it.

The Rev. Peter M. Donohue, Villanova's president, said he would like to name other schools at Villanova if donors came forward - the university also has schools of nursing, engineering, arts and sciences, and professional studies.

Widger's "incredibly generous gift" merited the recognition, the president said.

The gift is part of Villanova's $600 million capital campaign, which so far has collected more than $500 million. (The law school has brought in $56 million of that amount, $6 million over its goal.)

Widger has been involved with the law school for years, joining its board of consultors about a decade ago and chairing it from 2013 to 2015. He previously gave $1 million to launch the school's center for entrepreneurship, which emphasizes areas such as the economics of running a law firm, budgeting, and project management.

Widger, who served as a lieutenant in the Navy and once was an assistant attorney general for the Pennsylvania Department of Justice, also served on the board of trustees at Gettysburg College, where he earned his bachelor's degree in history in 1967.

"I have a passion for education," said Widger, a Drexel Hill native who graduated from Upper Darby High School. "I know it can transform lives."

Founded in 1953, the law school counts among its graduates lawyers at some of the region's leading law firms, as well as former Gov. Ed Rendell. The school was rocked in 2011 when Villanova disclosed that a handful of administrators had inflated admissions data of incoming students to boost the law school's U.S. News & World Report rankings. Those administrators are gone.

The school purposely downsized over the last few years as the market for lawyers declined, said Gotanda, who became dean in 2011.

"We're to the point where we think we are just the right size," he said.

ssnyder@phillynews.com

215-854-4693 @ssnyderinq

www.inquirer.com/campusinq

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