It started on a sparkling Saturday morning, Sept. 14, before Michigan State University’s home football game against Youngstown State University. A plane smoke-wrote the words “Go Blue!,” the battle cry of the University of Michigan, in the skies over Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.
“I was in [Washington] D.C., ready to go to a scholarship event. I heard about it when I was checking my Facebook feed,” says Scott Westerman, associate vice president for alumni relations and executive director at the MSU Alumni Association. “I saw all these pictures of ‘Go Blue’ posted by Spartans. I was thinking, ‘What the heck is all that about?'”
Before he could get to the bottom of the story, Westerman noticed the growing mushroom cloud of negativity emanating from MSU alumni and fans on social media.
“In the course of most rivalries, some folks take these things way more personally than they should, and they tend to incite others on those darker paths,” Westerman says. “I don’t think that’s what UM or MSU is all about.”
Westerman, a licensed pilot, estimated that the skywriting cost the perpetrator about $3,000. So he challenged his alumni to make lemonade from lemons rather than fight fire with fire. He asked each alumnus to make a donation to the Michigan Ovarian Cancer Alliance based in Ann Arbor, Mich., home of UM, and say the funds came from an MSU supporter.
“Will you help me show [UM] Wolverines everywhere what we can do with $3,000?” he asked in response to every angry social media comment he could find.
Why MIOCA? September is ovarian cancer awareness month. Westerman’s wife, Colleen, is an ovarian cancer survivor. And during her treatment at the UM Comprehensive Cancer Center, the couple learned that the treatment, carboplatin, was developed by researchers at—you guessed it—MSU.
“Together, Michigan and Michigan State were working to eradicate cancer,” Westerman wrote in a post on his blog at scottwesterman.com. “Neither of us can do it alone. We were on the same team.”
The grassroots campaign generated $1,000 per hour the night of Sept. 14. Westerman’s social media responses were retweeted and shared hundreds of times. When he returned to his hotel after the scholarship event, Westerman got a call from an acquaintance at MIOCA: the organization’s PayPal site had crashed because of the volume of donations.
In a little more than a week, several thousand MSU alumni and fans and many UM graduates had donated more than $40,000 to MIOCA. They’d redefined what a rivalry can—and should—be.
That’s when Westerman wondered: “If we can mobilize our alumni like this based on someone skywriting a few letters over Spartan Stadium, what if we mobilized them to support the institution?”
He penned another blog post summing up the past week’s events and asked readers to maintain their energetic generosity, but to shift their focus to support higher education in Michigan.
“Our state cannot thrive unless both Michigan and Michigan State thrive,” Westerman wrote, and included links to the donation pages for both institutions.
Nearly a month after the skywriting escapade, Westerman still receives emails and calls about the rivalry fundraising challenge. He recently attended an alumni event on the West Coast and cast aside his prepared remarks because people wanted to hear the skywriting story.
“We live in uncertain times for higher ed. What is the high-road message that will resonate with our alumni to such an extent that we can motivate them to take this kind of action?” he says. He admits telling the story of scholarships and endowments is difficult. “It’s not nearly as sexy as the love story of a wonderful woman whose life was saved because of UM and MSU. The stuff we’re talking about—the defunding of higher education—is much harder.”
Yet Westerman plans to point to the MSU alumni body’s response to the skywriting incident as an example of the power graduates have to make a tangible difference for a cause. He hopes the story prompts alumni to channel the same energy into getting state legislators’ attention when lawmakers debate higher education funding in Michigan. And he hopes the goodwill and momentum will encourage alumni to get involved in MSU’s next capital campaign, which will launch in the next year.
“This will be a warm spot in people’s hearts when the campaign comes across the radar,” Westerman says. “We’re going to take advantage of this positive story to inspire people to give.”