Taking the Plunge: Historic Donation In Hand, A Liberal Arts School Ramps Up STEM

reeves hall, chapman university

reeves hall, chapman university

The last year has provided several examples of liberal arts institutions stepping things up in STEM-related fields in interesting ways that fit with their values—and often with big donors footing the bill.

Back in January, Spelman College received a $1 million gift from Leonard and Louise Riggio to fund its Arts and Innovation Lab, which will "encourage creative collaborations at the intersection of the arts, technology, science and other liberal arts disciplines." And last September, Sarah Lawrence College announced a $2 million gift from alumna Suzanne Salter Arkin to create an endowment that engages science students with the arts, humanities, and literature.

Relatively speaking, these are incremental developments. It's almost as if schools are sensitive to a kind of unspoken, collective peer pressure—no one wants to be seen as cravenly abandoning their liberal arts roots for the STEM siren song. (Just imagine the looks of disgust from the philosophy department faculty.) While STEM fields have always been central to many liberal arts colleges, they tend to exist within a carefully balanced ecosystem that stresses the higher purposes of education. Hustling for big gifts to train students for the most practical of professions is anathema to this worldview. 

But times change, don't they? And while some schools are cautiously wading deeper into STEM waters, Chapman University is holding its nose and brazenly leaping off the high dive, cannonball-style. The Orange, California-based school announced it received a $100-million commitment from Dale E. Fowler, who graduated in 1958, and wife Sarah Ann, $45 million of which will be earmarked for an engineering school.

The Fowlers donated $55 million in 2013 to endow the university’s law school. The additional $45 million for engineering was announced this month. The new school could be accepting students as early as 2020.

If there's one similarity between the Sarah Lawrence College and Chapman gifts, it's that while both are traditionally liberal arts schools, neither are ramping up in STEM from a blank slate. Sarah Lawrence has a rigorous science curriculum, which includes a 14-year-old summer science research program, and the first three majors in Chapman's engineering school—"software, computer, and electrical engineering"—are fields in which the school already has some foundation.

This may sound like a subtle similarity, but it's actually important. While some donors like to pick up the figurative hammer and drive that very first nail, many others prefer to make that big give assured that some sort of groundwork is in place. It's a natural check against short- or long-term investment risk.

None of these developments suggest that Chapman is abandoning its liberal arts roots. Last spring, the school opened the Marybelle and Sebastian P. Musco Center for the Arts; in December, a $15-million donation from the Charles Koch Foundation and two anonymous donors established the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy.

And who are the Fowlers, by the way? Dale Fowler created Fowler Properties, an Anaheim real estate investment and management firm. Two of his children attended Chapman. The third serves on its board of governors. The Fowlers also donated $1 million for the science building and started a Steinway grand piano collection in the new music center. They have also donated to various scholarships, athletics, and other programs.

If the school's administrators felt susceptible to "STEM peer pressure" from their liberal arts brethren, they certainly aren't owning up to it. Quite the opposite, in fact. "This has been a dream for a long time," said Daniele Struppa, Chapman's president. According to Strupa, the school has wanted to boost its national profile for quite some time, and embracing the sciences is key to this endeavor. 

Meanwhile, if the philosophy faculty are grumbling at Chapman, they are doing so quietly.