The Forces Behind a $57 Million Gift by an Alumni Couple

How about $57 million from a couple from the Class of '57? That has a certain ring to it.

Well, Auburn University alumni John and Rosemary Brown recently gave $57 million to their alma mater for a new performing arts center and a student achievement center in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. It's the largest gift in the school's history and nailing down the precise ingredients involved is useful.

For starters, it might be useful to know a few things about the donors. John Brown was CEO and chairman of the board of Stryker Corporation, a leading medical device company with annual revenue exceeding $9 billion. Brown has a humble background, born to a Tennessee farm family during the Depression. He began a pre-engineering course in 1953 at Freed-Hardeman College in Tennessee, and then went on to Auburn University, receiving a B.S. in engineering. From there, he took several engineering jobs, eventually working at Squibb and then Stryker for more than three decades. Oh, I should also mention that Brown is worth $2.1 billion. Reflecting on his success, Brown once said, “I grew up on a farm. I’m here because I got a good education.”

Rosemary Brown, meanwhile, graduated from Auburn in 1957 with a chemistry degree and worked as a math teacher for almost three decades.

So clearly, education is important to this family, and given their backgrounds, engineering especially. It's also worth noting that we're dealing with an alumni couple here, which, as we often like to say, means double the loyalty. In a story I wrote recently, an alumni couple parsed out a $50 million gift to University of Michigan through many different entities on campus.

Related: The Intense Loyalties Behind an Alumni Couple's $50 Million Gift

While the Browns' money won't be spread out to that extent, it's worth noting that these alumni couple gifts involve two people committed to the school, not just one, with the potential for such far-reaching quality.

As well, it's worth talking about how Auburn stayed on the couple's radar, even as the Browns moved from Alabama to Michigan. The couple still lives in Michigan, though Brown retired from Stryker a while back. In fact, the couple's John and Rosemary Brown Family Foundation focuses on Michigan (as well as Georgia and Chicago) in its philanthropy, with recent money going to Rochester College, Kalamazoo College, and Portage Community Outreach. Education is certainly a priority of the foundation. In a recent year, the couple gave away around $1 million.

Still, Auburn University has received support in the past, including a $1 million gift to the Auburn University Foundation in 2009. As well, Brown is a member of the executive committee and chairs the audit committee of the Auburn University Foundation. In addition, Brown received the Auburn Alumni Association's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. This is yet another common theme in higher education philanthropy—even as a donor gets pulled away from his or her college community, he or she remains strongly commited. It certainly doesn't hurt that in this case, the Browns have two granddaughters enrolled at Auburn, too.

Also, the Browns' involvement with the Auburn University Foundation is especially relevant because the university recently kicked off the public phase of its $1 billion capital campaign. It's no surprise, then, that a billionaire couple would be motivated to make a big splash first, hoping to inspire others to follow suit.