A Donor Making a National Push to Fund Entrepreneurship on Campus

Robert McNair, billionaire founder of the Houston Texans and chairman and CEO of McNair Group has given millions to colleges and universitiesin Texas and beyond. Much of this philanthropy has been health- and science-related and Baylor College of Medicine is a site of the McNair Scholars program. These McNair Scholars pursue "collaborative and transformational research in the areas of breast and pancreatic cancer, juvenile diabetes and the neurosciences."

The McNairs have also established major McNair Scholars programs at other schools, including University of South Carolina and Rice University. This philanthropy is personal, at least in part, as McNair has suffered from two forms of cancer.

While medical research plays an important role in this couple's higher education and overall philanthropy, several major gifts in the past year have gone toward establishing entrepreneurship and free enterprise centers on campus. One of these gifts is an $8 million endowment gift to establish the McNair Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The new McNair Center will be the "research oriented cornerstone of a larger, nationwide consortium of McNair Foundation-funded centers devoted to entrepreneurship education."

So there's that.

But what, exactly, is behind the McNairs' gift to Rice and this nationwide push in entrepreneurship? Well, for one, McNair is an entrepreneur whose Cogen Technologies was sold to Enron in 1999 for $1.5 billion.  Additionally, if you've been following us for a while here at Inside Philanthropy, we've noted how colleges and universities have been raking in big money to support entrepreneurship on campus of late. In another gift I wrote about, Irwin Zahn's Moxie Foundation gave a multimillion-dollar gift to San Diego State University to support entrepreneurship.


As McNair puts it, "This is an opportunity for us to make a real contribution to society and to help create an environment that empowers ingenuity and creativity, unleashes the productivity of private enterprise and builds sustainable economic growth.”

So what other gifts have been involved in the McNairs' national push?

Well, the couple also recently gave a $5 million gift to establish the McNair Center for Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas Houston. The Center will advance "research and education on the role of private enterprise, individual initiative and entrepreneurship in fostering economic growth and authentic human flourishing." As well, Northwood University in Midland, Michigan received a $5 million gift to support the new Robert C. and Janice S. McNair Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship. Columbia College in South Carolina, Janice's alma mater, is also the site of — you guessed it — the McNair Center for Entrepreneurism. The couple has also supported the McNair Speakers Series at Isothermal Community College in North Carolina.

Now, if you're sensing that there's a conservative bent to some of this funding, your hunch is correct. Bob McNair is a major GOP donor. However, overall, this doesn't seem to be a pattern among the donors we've been looking at who are funding entrepreneurship on campus.