An "Inspiration" and Friend: A Prominent Professor Helps Spur An Engineering Gift

Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently received a $4 million gift from alumnus Hock E. Tan to endow a professorship in its Department of Mechanical Engineering. Tan studied mechanical engineering at MIT and also earned an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. He went on to hold high-level positions at PepsiCo, General Motors, and Commodore International, among others, and currently serves as CEO of Avago Technologies, the world's leading diversified communications semiconductor company, which recently acquired Broadcom for $37 billion.

Tan has obviously enjoyed enormous success and it makes sense that he'd show gratitude for the school that gave him his start. There are a couple of lessons, though, worth digging into a bit more. For one, Tan came to MIT from Malaysia, a country where he later worked. Tan has also worked in Singapore. I've written before about the unique backgrounds of donors who've lived abroad and have to adjust to life in the states.

Related: Why Foreign-Born Alumni Will be a Growing Gold Mine for Colleges 

Successfully transitioning to college is extremely critical for all students, but students with foreign backgrounds face unique challenges. It appears that Tan's transition was eased in part by now-Professor Emeritus Nam P. Suh, who joined the MIT faculty in 1970 and who led the department of mechanical engineering from 1991 to 2001. Suh also founded the Laboratory of Manufacturing and Productivity (LMP), and the MIT-Industry Polymer Processing Program. As Tan puts it, "Professor Suh was an inspiration to me, as well as a friend... I am very grateful for the support he gave me during my time at MIT." 

Another element here is timing. Tan’s gift will be honored this fall during an 80th birthday celebration for Suh, being held at the annual International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition.

But this isn't just a story about a prominent engineering professor influencing a young engineering student. One of Tan's roles over the years included serving as CEO of Integrated Circuit Systems, where Suh served as a director. So on some level, these two have fostered a long-running relationship, an ingredient we often see in these kinds of gifts. 

Every campus fundraiser knows that universities have a huge stake in keeping their alumni connected to what's happening on campus. Less obvious, perhaps, is how ties with former professors can be among the strongest kinds of connections one has to an alma mater. 

Now, in an ideal world, professors would keep campus development offices apprised of ongoing ties they have with former students who've become wealthy. Alas, many professors aren't on the ball in this respect. Connecting with faculty, included those who are retired, and pumping them for any such leads could be time well spent.

Or how about this labor-intensive project for development worker bees: Finding out who wealthy alums studied with during their years in school by mining old records, and then surveying those professors to see what relationships might still endure. Who knows? You just might strike gold. 

Related: Campus Cash