In a special ceremony on Thursday, May 11, Wayne State University conferred upon Detroit entrepreneur and philanthropist Marian Ilitch an honorary degree. The university recognized Ilitch’s extraordinary contributions to the revitalization of Detroit, her achievements as a businessperson and her longstanding support of community efforts throughout Michigan.
Ilitch was presented with a doctor of laws, honoris causa, in Wayne State’s Lear Auditorium inside the Mike Ilitch School of Business at a gathering that included her family, representatives from Ilitch Companies, and members of the Wayne State University Board of Governors, senior leadership, and the Mike Ilitch School of Business. The honorary doctorate is the highest academic recognition the university can confer.
“As a successful businessperson, civic leader and philanthropist, Marian Ilitch is an inspiration not only to our students, but to me personally,” said Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson. “When you look at the enormously positive impact she has had on our community — whether that’s building some of the world’s most popular companies that have, in turn, launched and supported thousands of small businesses around the country, and jobs here in Detroit — Marian is a most worthy recipient of this tribute. Wayne State is fortunate to be a part of her legacy, which will endure for generations.”
Ilitch joins a distinguished lineup of individuals who have received an honorary degree during Wayne State’s 155-year history. Other notable recipients include John C. Lodge (1944), Walter P. Reuther (1953), Thurgood Marshall (1963), Damon J. Keith (1973), Rosa Parks (1975), Bob Seger (1989), Aretha Franklin (1990), Ernie Harwell (2008) and Anthony Fauci (2015).
“I am incredibly humbled to receive this honor, especially from President Wilson, who has been a remarkable leader at Wayne State and a tremendous friend to me,” said Marian Ilitch. “As a lifelong learner, I deeply value the opportunities that education provides. I am proud to officially call myself a Wayne State Warrior.”
Ilitch and her late husband, Mike Ilitch, shared a commitment to revitalizing Detroit through investments and support for city-based initiatives to improve lives and create jobs, educational and other opportunities for Detroiters.
In 2015, the Ilitches made a $40 million gift to Wayne State University to create the Mike Ilitch School of Business, which is developing the next generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs for this region. The gift remains the largest in the history of the university, and the Ilitch School provides students with a comprehensive education that prepares them for success.
One year earlier, the Ilitches made an $8.5 million gift to Wayne State’s School of Medicine to create the Ilitch Chair for Surgical Innovation and establish a fund to support research and development in surgical technologies. In recognition, Wayne State named the department the Michael and Marian Ilitch Department of Surgery.
“This degree represents Marian Ilitch’s decades of determination, hard work and dedication to Detroit,” said Virginia Kleist, dean of the Wayne State University Mike Ilitch School of Business. “Her strong business acumen and attention to detail, combined with her and her late husband’s shared values, have made a lasting positive change in our community. We are grateful for their longstanding partnership.”
Born in Dearborn to Macedonian immigrants, Ilitch, a first-generation American, was raised on grit and hard work, which she in turn used to become one of the most successful businesswomen in the country, paving the way for countless others along the way.
With her late husband, Ilitch co-founded Little Caesars Pizza, which has become the third-largest pizza chain in the world, with stores in each of the 50 U.S. states and 27 countries and territories. They expanded their interests to include sports, entertainment, gaming and other sectors. Today, under the leadership of their son Chris, Ilitch Companies represents 12 businesses under common private ownership that employ thousands of people in the Detroit area and around the world.
Ilitch’s commitment to the community has been steadfast. Since 2000, Marian and Mike, the Ilitch Companies, and charitable affiliates have provided more than $250 million in grants and giving, with most of it directed at impacting the city of Detroit. Through impactful charitable platforms and support of more than 500 Detroit-based organizations, her legacy is felt in a wide range of critical community causes.
Ilitch has received numerous honors and recognitions for her professional and philanthropic work. In 2019, she was named an inaugural member of the Mike Ilitch School of Business Entrepreneurship and Innovation Hall of Fame. Marian and Mike Ilitch received the school’s inaugural Michigan Executive of the Year Award in 1999. Additional awards and honors that Ilitch has received include: Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (2010); International Franchise Association Hall of Fame (2016); Michigan State University Honorary Doctorate of Business Degree (2011); Michigan Women’s Foundation Woman of Achievement and Courage Trillium Lifetime Achievement Award (2011); DBusiness magazine Detroit’s most powerful women (2010); National Management Association Hall of Fame Award (2010); Michigan Chronicle Legacy in Motion Family Spirit Award (2009); Neal Shine Shining Light Award (2007); NAWBO Detroit Top 10 Michigan Business Women Award (2007); Crain’s Detroit Business Top Women in Business Honoree (2005); Detroit Historical Society Detroit’s Enterprising Women (2004); Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame (2001); Hospice of Southeastern Michigan Council Crystal Rose Award (1997); National Association of Women Business Owners Greater Detroit Chapter Michigan’s Top 25 women business owners (1994); Roundtable for Women in Foodservice Pacesetter Award (1988); and others.