Reception speech: Why David Wilson chose to donate $25 million to UNI

Reception speech: Why David Wilson chose to donate $25 million to UNI

David Wilson delivering remarks at luncheon

The following remarks were delivered by David Wilson at a luncheon reception held in honor of Wilson's $25 million dollar gift to the University of Northern Iowa. The event was held in Maucker Union on Friday, October 20, 2023.

"Before I get started, my wife Holly reminded me that you cannot be both brief and bad at the same time. So I will attempt to make this short and good. She further reminded me of one of her favorite 'Wilsonisms': 'True charity is anonymous'– and that if I had followed my own advice and just given the university the money, I wouldn’t have to be making this speech. However, charitable giving is a natural part of leadership. True leaders exemplify charity – they don’t just talk about it. 

I have been interested in the value of a liberal arts, ethical-based business education since I myself was a student here at UNI. I believe my business success is a result of the philosophical education I received here.

Today many people want to substitute 'equity of results' for equality of opportunity.  Personally, I believe our country was founded on meritocracy. Let me provide an example:

In 1620 the Mayflower set sail from England, carrying 102 passengers to find religious liberty and freedom in the New World. Sadly, few Americans know the real story of these early colonists. Even fewer know that over half the settlement died in the first harsh winter. And those that do know these sad facts have come to mistakenly believe that bad weather or lack of farming skill caused shortages and starvation for these early settlers. But that is not the case. Bad weather and ignorance did not decimate that colony. Bad economic policy did.

The Puritan Pilgrims wanted to establish a new world order based upon community and brotherly love. To that end, upon arriving in America, they set up a system and signed a manifesto that there would be no such thing as private property or division of labor. It was even forbidden for an individual to produce their own food. All food and supplies were held in common. Plantation officials were to equally distribute goods to all.

However, the unanticipated result of this sharing and 'equalization' was that, since all colonists received the same rations whether they contributed or not, there was little incentive to actually help produce any food. People quickly realized that it was easier to do nothing and still get rewarded (sound familiar?). Despite their Puritan religious convictions, many Pilgrims actually stole food from one another. Other settlers faked illness or injury to get out of work. It was a deadly disaster (again – sound familiar?)

After three winters of misery, Governor William Bradford finally began to note the flaws in this system and decided to change course. The Governor assigned 'every family a parcel of land to do with as they saw fit.' Some kept what they produced, and others mutually exchanged goods with other Pilgrims. Finally – families could enjoy the fruits of their own labor. 

The results were dramatic. Never again did they face starvation. Ultimately private property and capitalism saved the Pilgrims. Every family still received the same-sized plot of land, but some were more successful because they were willing to work harder. Actually, our Country was founded on the idea of equal opportunities - not equal outcomes. The pilgrims tried the 'equal outcomes' approach with disastrous results. Yet this philosophy has recently come to the forefront again, and this is what causes my concern.

Today, at 75, I only work half days – 12 hours - seven days a week.  Because I am so much better at what I do than I am at golf.  I’ve worked much harder at it.

Ayn Rand once said, 'Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think.'  From 1966 to 1970 here at UNI, I didn’t learn how to be a teacher. I didn’t learn to be an accountant. I didn’t learn how to write a musical score or participate in the performing arts. I learned to think. And for that, I will be forever grateful.

In 1999, my wife Holly and I donated $1 million to the university to establish a chair in business ethics. Dr. Rusty Guay holds that position today. 

After that gift, I was visited annually by Presidents Bob Koob, Ben Allen, Bill Ruud, and most recently by current President Mark Nook to solicit an even more substantial donation. We have chosen this time to make that additional investment in an ethics-based business curriculum at UNI because government and the media continue to blame business for the world’s economic problems. Ethical capitalism needs all the help it can get.

Luncheon celebrating David Wilson's donation

Obviously one of our country’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, agreed with me in 1864 when he said:

'Property is the fruit of labor; property is desirable; it is a positive good in the world.  That some should be rich shows that others MAY BECOME rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise.

Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.'

Note the first six words of President Lincoln’s quote: 'Property is the fruit of labor.'  Now there are just too many who want the fruit without the labor.

I believe this is the perfect time for this gift to help present a philosophical defense of capitalism. It is our hope that this contribution will foster instruction that reveals the importance of maintaining ethical principles in the corporate environment at all levels of business – from daily operations to executive decisions - and will also promote the tactful and tactical rational thinking required to defend successful companies from ideological attacks.

In our judgment, our nation’s political and economic future is in peril. An ethical defense of free markets is crucial to reversing the current anti-capitalist trend -  before it is too late. 

Government, under the guise of protecting the public, disguises its role in creating many of our economic problems by increasing its ever-expanding control over American business. Corporate citizens can and should respond to the ideological attacks against them. To do so, they need to be armed with the right ethical philosophies. It is our hope that the curriculum at the David W. Wilson College of Business will provide future students with this ammunition.

It is also our desire that this contribution will encourage other alumnae and friends of the University to step up as they are able and contribute to support an ethics-based education here at the David W. Wilson College of Business. Thank you."