A Donor's Big Footprint on This Campus Just Got Even Bigger

This has a certain ring to it: The Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering at Rowan University. 

The school in question is located in Glassboro, NJ, and was, once upon a time, called Glassboro State College. Then, in 1992, Henry Rowan and his wife Betty dropped $100 million on the place—the largest gift ever to a public college at the time. More recently, the Henry M. Rowan Foundation gave $15 million to Rowan University’s College of Engineering, renaming it.

What's interesting here, though, are not these big numbers for what was once a little school or the ubiquity of the Rowan name on campus (there's also a "Rowan Boulevard). Rather, it's that these gifts illustrate a number of themes we emphasize in IP's higher ed coverage, including how regional affiliation sometimes trumps alumni loyalty, and how philanthropists love standing up for underdog institutions.

Let's start with the most interesting fact in the story: Henry Rowan is not an alumnus of this school. And when he made his initial mega-gift, he had no personal connection to the place at all. 

Wait, what?

To start answering that question, it might help to know a bit about Henry Rowan. He was born in 1923, the same year Glassboro opened its doors, and went on to serve in WWII as a bomber pilot. He later attended MIT, where he received a degree in electrical engineering. After graduating, he worked for a Trenton company called Ajax Electrothermic Corporation, before later starting Inductotherm Corp, which specializes in what's called induction melting. These days, the company has at least 80 subsidiaries worldwide.

Rowan spent the better part of his life in New Jersey growing his business, so it makes sense that he'd feel a strong connection to the state. It also makes sense that engineering education would be a top priority, given his background. But why a school in Glassboro, New Jersey?

Rowan's connection to the school began in the early 1990s when Philip A. Tumminia, then vice president of institutional advancement at the college, courted Rowan for a $1,500 corporate scholarship donation. Tumminia appears to have done his homework, reaching out to a monied business owner in the area. The two kicked around ideas and hit it off, but Rowan initially wasn't sold on the school. Then Rowan made a proposition of his own: A $100 million gift, but only if the college established an engineering school. Rowan also requested that the school set up a scholarship program for the children of Inductotherm employees. The rest is history. 

Wow. Now there's a wild story of an ask that escalated. We've come across plenty of instances in which a donor upsold himself into a much bigger gift, but never one where somebody was asked for $1,500 and ultimately gave 66,000 times that amount. Phil Tumminia should be nominated to the Fundraisers Hall of Fame (once such a place is built). 

Certainly that $100 million could have gone to MIT, Rowan's alma mater, but as we've seen before, the draw of an underdog institution hoping to move up in the world is often inspiring for donors who really want their money to make a difference. I wrote recently about a similar gift to the University of Redlands, where a couple was motivated to bolster a struggling, low-profile school and make a big splash in a small pond.

Related: Meet The Couple That Wants to Put Their Alma Mater on the Map

Rowan himself recognized that his money would have more of an impact at a place like Glassboro, saying "My little old $100 million would have helped them [MIT] along, but would not have made one little bit of difference in their educational standards. To give away the results of your life’s work and make no difference would be almost criminal." Instead, Rowan gave his money to a "little old" college in suburban New Jersey.

As for Rowan's latest $15 million gift to the university which bears his name, the money will establish a permanent endowment exclusively for the College of Engineering. In 2013, Rowan gave $300,000 to establish the Henry Rowan Engineering Ph.D. Fellowship Program and $100,000 to the Henry Rowan Engineering Globalization Fellowship Program for Undergraduates.

As we always say, past giving often leads to more giving. In this case, it's particularly important to remember that Rowan's philanthropic history at the university began with a huge gift which renamed not just say, a law school or a medical school, but an entire institution. 

In recent years, Rowan's charitable outfit, the Henry M. Rowan Family Foundation has supported other engineering education efforts including giving to the National Academy of Engineering and bankrolling engineering scholarships at Drexel University.

Oh, and funds have also gone to the MIT Scholarship Foundation—a few small crumbs for a giant university. If only the world always worked this way.