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Cummings Foundation pledges $20 million to Roger Williams for real estate school

The gift will help RI university broaden its real estate programs.

An aerial view of the main campus in Bristol, R.I., of Roger Williams University. The school announced Wednesday its biggest donation ever, $20 million from the Cummings Foundation, to expand its school of architecture.Photo courtesy of Roger Williams University

Over the last two decades, the Cummings Foundation has announced major gifts for four institutions of higher learning.

All of them have helped with job training and career development. But none of them directly reflected Bill Cummings’s long career in real estate.

Until now.

On Wednesday, Roger Williams University, in Bristol, R.I., announced a pledge of at least $20 million from the Cummings Foundation, in part to help add a real estate education program at the university’s school of architecture. Certificate programs will begin there later this year, and undergraduate and graduate degree programs in real estate will start in 2023. Roger Williams officials say the gift from the Woburn-based foundation is the largest the university has ever received and will enable the school to add to a broad real estate curriculum that includes subjects ranging from law to development to engineering.

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Roger Williams will rename the school the Cummings School of Architecture as a result.

“This is a historic moment for Roger Williams University,” said university president Ioannis Miaoulis. “It will truly be transformative.”

Miaoulis, the former president of the Museum of Science in Boston, said he started looking at ways to create more interdisciplinary programs at the university, to better harness its strengths, soon after taking the job at Roger Williams nearly three years ago. The real estate school grew out of those early discussions.

“I started meeting with alums, and I realized that a lot of our very successful alums are in the real estate business,” Miaoulis said.

In particular, Roger Williams graduate Todd Rechler at RXR Realty in New York encouraged Miaoulis to focus on the sector. Miaoulis has long known Bill and Joyce Cummings from his tenure as engineering dean at Tufts University — Bill Cummings’s alma mater —before he started leading the science museum in 2003.

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Roger Williams has already hired an executive director for the real estate program, Richard Godfrey. Miaoulis said the staffing levels haven’t been determined yet.

“We’ve always respected him,” Bill Cummings said of Miaoulis. “It felt good to include Roger Williams University with the other four colleges that we’ve established special relationships with.”

Bill Cummings grew up in Medford, within walking distance of the Tufts campus, and likes to say he talked his way into the school by showing up unannounced and charming the admissions director. Cummings eventually built a real estate empire north of Boston under the banner of Cummings Properties, and he and his wife, Joyce, have emerged as major local philanthropists.

The couple’s foundation has given tens of millions of dollars to colleges and universities, often focused on workforce training. At Tufts, the couple has backed the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. They also helped found the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda along with Dr. Paul Farmer and Bill and Melinda Gates, and support the Cummings School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Endicott College. Most recently, the Cummings Foundation pledged $12.5 million to the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, which is building a new campus in Roxbury.

Bill Cummings said he sees the BFIT gift as helping suburban businesses as well as those in Boston, because of the training that students will get in life sciences jobs in particular, as companies in that fast-growing field scramble to fill open positions. Meanwhile, he said he’s hopeful that the gift to Roger Williams can help diversify the real estate brokerage community, one that has been largely run by men.

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“It’s a great group of people [but] it’s almost a fraternity, the brokerage community in Boston,” Bill Cummings said. “And it doesn’t need to be.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him @jonchesto.