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Watts College celebrates 5 years of gift’s impact

Dean cites expanded faculty, enhanced community work as among many benefits of Mike and Cindy Watts’ support in 2018

Mike and Cindy Watts, Watts College, University Center, sign, 2020
October 23, 2023

The word “transformative” is often used these days, but five years ago, it perfectly described the dynamic change for the then-College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

In October 2018, Mike and Cindy Watts made a bold decision, to provide a substantial investment in ASU’s public service college to continue their commitment to a prosperous Arizona through the wide-ranging reach and capacity of Arizona State University.

Their $30 million investment into the renamed Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions is one of the largest gifts in ASU history. The initial intent of the impressive outlay — ensuring a bright future for the public service profession — remains in 2023 the heartfelt wish of the Wattses, who grew up in the west Phoenix community of Maryvale.

Mike and Cindy Watts performed a major transformation themselves. The small lawnmower-rental business they took over in 1977 became the multistate Sunstate Equipment Co.

Mike Watts expressed surprise about how much time has passed.

“Wow, has it really been five years?” he said. “We couldn’t be more thrilled with what the Watts College has achieved in that time, including the ‘boots on the ground’ work occurring in Maryvale, attracting elite faculty and giving unique learning opportunities to deserving students who want to make a difference in their communities.”

Watts pointed out that these achievements occurred despite several of the five years involving navigating the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Cindy Watts said she and her husband are pleased with the many things the college is doing to fulfill its mission.

“We are proud to be associated with a college that does so much to lift up our community, and even prouder of the students, leadership, faculty and staff who carry out the Watts College mission every day,” she said.

Watts College Dean Cynthia Lietz said the Wattses’ contribution made a wide array of fruitful investments in people and communities.

Since 2018, Lietz said, the gift has endowed three of five planned professorships bearing the Watts name. It has augmented efforts by ASU faculty, staff and students to collaborate with Maryvale residents to solve community concerns and tackle local issues, she said, and it enabled the college to spread a commitment to public service through its Spirit of Service Scholars program that serves undergraduate and graduate students studying any discipline across ASU.

Lietz, too, said she couldn’t believe it has been five years.

“I can hardly believe we are already celebrating five years as the Watts College. To say this gift has been transformational for our college is an understatement,” Lietz said. “Not only has this investment increased the size of our faculty and enhanced our community-embedded work, it also attracted additional philanthropic investment, allowing us to further grow our impact. Thank you to Mike and Cindy for believing in us and for all of the ways your support and encouragement helps us to accomplish our mission.”

Exterior of a building with the words "Watts College of Public Service and Commnity Solutions."

Photo by Mark J. Scarp/ASU

Here are some highlights from their investment over the past five years. Many involve Watts College students working with faculty, staff and community members:

  • Three of five planned Watts Endowed Professorships were filled with support from the Watts gift. They are held by faculty members Renee Cunningham-Williams of the School of Social Work, Maryann Feldman of the School of Public Affairs and Beth Huebner of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Lietz said the remaining two professorships are expected to be filled within the next two years.
  • In Maryvale, through the college’s Design Studio for Community Solutions, the One Square Mile Initiative (OSM) — since expanded to serve several square miles of the community — collaborates with residents on many projects. These include hosting community conversations in English and Spanish that help develop and refine the OSM initiative’s priorities and aspirations; collaborating with ASU’s Global Launch to offer a remote Teaching English as a Foreign Language certificate program; and with a third-party partner, arranging more than 70 ethnographic interviews with key community stakeholders that are synthesized into a Community Roadmap.
  • The Watts College Co-op connects ASU students, faculty and staff with community partners to find collaborative solutions to community challenges. Since 2018 it has funded scholarships to undergraduates conducting research, provided seed funding to faculty to conduct community-embedded projects, and supported ServeCon, the college’s Fall Welcome event that helps build connections between new students and educates them about the co-op.
  • The Dean’s Student Access for Success Fund provides flexible support for tuition and transformative experiences, such as studying abroad and internships, for first-generation students and those with high financial need. In 2021–22, 37 students participated in the program.
  • The Spirit of Service Scholars program helps develop leaders with the talent, compassion and skills to become the next generation of public-interest advocacy and community engagement professionals. The scholars learn skills in areas including public engagement; advocacy in public, private and nonprofit sectors; effective communications; and resource development. Scholars also plan and present public-interest seminars on topics they select, designed to inform the community and provide participants with skills and opportunities to act in many areas, including advocacy, volunteering and raising awareness.

Top photo: Cindy and Mike Watts, for whom the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions is named, stand in front of the college's home at the University Center on the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus. Photo by Mark J. Scarp/ASU