$6.8M Gift to Extend Opportunities to Underserved Montgomery County Students

Unlikely Family Connection Drew Donors to Expand Incentive Awards Program

Student faced away from camera dressed in black cap and gown with arms lifted up in celebration against a green background of grass

A nearly $7 million gift from a Boston couple will significantly increase the size and long-term impact of a University of Maryland program that supports promising students from selected areas of the state.

Starting in Fall 2021, five freshmen from Montgomery County each year will be awarded four-year scholarships, receive mentoring and join a tight-knit peer community in the Incentive Awards Program (IAP)—which until now comprised students in Prince George’s County and Baltimore—through the funding from Phillip and Elizabeth Gross and a matching grant from UMD and the Clark Challenge for the Maryland Promise Program (MPP).

It is the largest-ever donation to IAP, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, and to the Maryland Promise Program, created by a 2017 investment from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation to provide scholarships to underserved populations from the state of Maryland and D.C.

“We’re leveraging matching grant money, and we’re supporting outstanding students in a program where they have a very high chance to succeed and high expectations to perform and impact the community,” Phill Gross said. “Put that together and it was easy for Liz and me to get involved.”

That’s despite the fact that he graduated from another Big Ten school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), and the Grosses previously had no direct connection to the University of Maryland or IAP. What drew them in was their relationship to a similar program at his alma mater founded, coincidentally, by the mother-in-law of IAP’s founding director.

Phill Gross, co-founder and managing director of Adage Capital Management, a money management firm in Boston, was looking to give back to UW about 20 years ago when he met Mercile J. Lee, who had established its Chancellor’s Scholars Program and Powers-Knapp Scholars Program to welcome talented students from underrepresented groups. The paired programs emphasized service, leadership development, peer support and mentorship, and provided financial aid and Lee’s inimitable influence.

“There were 120 students in the program, and she was a mentor to all of them,” Gross said. “She was a person you didn’t want to disappoint. Everybody felt that.”

He and Liz Gross ended up making several major gifts to the UW program, with the last one scheduled to be announced in November 2018. When Mercile Lee died a month earlier, that event became a celebration of her life, and the family memorial service held that day brought together the couple with her son, Robb, and daughter-in-law, Jacqueline Wheeler Lee.

Gross had previously heard about IAP, and he began asking founder Jackie Lee about the UMD program over the following months. His takeaway: “She knows how to run a program, and she knows how to set expectations that these students can change the world when they leave it. Our confidence in that was a critical part of this.”

The new Mercile J. Lee Maryland Promise Incentive Awards Program Endowed Scholarship will ultimately fund 20 students at a time from Montgomery County; IAP currently counts 64 scholars, including some of the 23 MPP scholars. The Mercile J. Lee Incentive Awards Program Support Endowment will allow Lee to hire additional staff and grow its programming.

Jackie Lee said the Grosses would never have supported IAP if it weren’t for Mercile, or for the program’s successful track record, which includes 176 graduates, many of whom have gone on to earn advanced degrees, launch successful careers in education, medicine, business and more, and serve their communities.

“This gift will catapult IAP toward its long-term goal of welcoming students from every county in Maryland. It isn’t just expanding the number of opportunities we’re extending to students, but it’s also expanding our reach,” she said. “It's so meaningful for me personally as well. I'm touched knowing that the impact of Mercile's life is even more widely felt than at Wisconsin and in our family. Her enduring legacy will now live on through the scholars this gift will support."

The gift, the biggest to the university since Darryll J. Pines assumed its presidency in July, supports both of his top priorities: to promote excellence and to create an inclusive, multicultural campus community.

“I’m energized by the generosity of Phill and Liz Gross, whose approach to philanthropy is uniquely unbound by geography or personal affiliation,” he said. “By giving to IAP and the Maryland Promise Program, they are expanding access to a world-class University of Maryland education, and we are deeply grateful.”

Phill and Liz Gross, whose substantial philanthropy extends across the arts, higher education and youth programs, are particularly moved by those that focus on diversity and mentorship, as IAP does.

“I really, really believe we all have mentors in our lives who changed the trajectory of our education or our careers, and we believe that diversity is critical, but it’s not going to happen by itself,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to be in the situation that we’re in, and we feel it’s an obligation to try to support many, many different programs that achieve these important goals.”