Steve Hicks knew he wanted to donate $25 million to his alma mater, the University of Texas. But which of its various colleges and schools would be the recipient?
“It really wasn’t that hard to figure out which one helps people the most,” Hicks said, explaining his choice of the School of Social Work.
UT officials announced the donation Wednesday at an outdoor ceremony that had the atmosphere of a pep rally, replete with music by the Longhorn Band and confetti in burnt orange and white. Officials said the gift ranks among the largest in the nation to a public university’s social work school.
In an interview with the American-Statesman, Hicks made it clear that his life experiences influenced his decision. A social worker held his mother’s hand as she passed away. And Hicks, a UT System regent, investor and former radio industry executive, has himself benefited from social workers.
“I’m in long-term recovery from the disease of alcoholism. They do a lot of work in that area. They have counseled me and helped me to lead a more balanced and meaningful life,” Hicks said, adding that he has been sober for 13 years.
Of the $25 million, $10 million will establish a permanent endowment for student scholarships; $5 million will be used as matching funds to attract additional donations for students; and $10 million will enhance research and teaching in the field of addictions and underwrite new programs to equip students with skills in fundraising and philanthropy essential for nonprofit and managerial fields.
Hicks said he has given $5 million so far and will contribute the balance within five years. In recognition of the donation, UT has renamed its school the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. Hicks graduated from UT in 1972 with a degree in government.
“By investing in our social work students, Steve Hicks is investing in a fabric that binds communities together,” UT President Gregory L. Fenves said. “Social work students commit to dedicate their lives to service and enriching the lives of others.”
Luis H. Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work, said, “Thanks to his generosity, more individuals regardless of socioeconomic background will be able to respond to their social work calling with less concern about student debt and will have more freedom after graduating to pursue their passion for helping others and changing the world for the better.”
Hicks said social workers and the faculty members who train them are doing “God’s work,” tending to people who are homeless, mentally ill, addicted to drugs or alcohol, injured, dying or otherwise in distress. He said their services no doubt will be called upon to help people recover from Hurricane Harvey. Many social workers make no more than about $35,000 a year, he said. The average debt for UT social work students who borrow to attend school is $45,000.
“My goal is to drive that $45,000 down significantly, and I think we can accomplish that over time,” Hicks said.
Hicks, who lives in Austin, was first appointed to the UT Board of Regents in 2009 by then-Gov. Rick Perry. He has been reappointed twice, most recently in January 2015 by Gov. Greg Abbott. He founded and served as CEO of Capstar Broadcasting Corp., which at one point was the nation’s largest radio station holding company, with 350 stations. He is currently the owner and executive chairman of Capstar Partners LLC, a private investment firm.
Despite such accomplishments, Hicks described himself as “certainly a flawed human being. I’ve got a couple of divorces. At the end of the day, the question is did you make a difference in this world? Are you leaving it in a better place than when you came in? This is my way of answering that.
“I’ve been blessed by some business success, and I wanted to make a gift to help as many other people as possible. The average social worker positively affects over 1,000 people in the course of their career. The math on that was really appealing to me.”
Octavia Cox, a junior majoring in social work at UT, was wide-eyed after Wednesday’s event. “It was kind of shocking — in a good way,” she said.
Programs in law, engineering, business and the sciences tend to get the high-dollar gifts at UT and other major universities, and Cox said it was refreshing to see social work receive a generous contribution.
Zayas, the social work dean, said the gift will cement and help elevate the school’s standing. U.S. News & World Report ranks it among the top 10 graduate programs for social work in the nation.
In 2012, Hicks recommended, and his fellow UT regents approved, a plan to establish recovery programs for students with drug or alcohol problems at all of the UT System’s academic campuses except Austin, which already had such a program in place.