Different Times Call for Different Skills. Another Couple Looking to Boost STEM at Their Alma Mater

 Bates college

Bates college

The narrative of a student attending a liberal arts institution, making millions in the science and technology sector, and subsequently nudging his alma mater to embrace STEM fields is increasingly common across the higher education space.

Consider the journey of Michael Bonney and Alison Grott Bonney, alumni of Bates College in Maine. Both graduated in 1980. He is the retired CEO of the Lexington, Massachusetts-based Cubist Pharmaceuticals. Merck & Co. acquired Cubist in 2014.

The Bonneys' family foundation recently gave Bates College a $50 million gift, one of the largest in the history of Maine higher education, to fund the building and renovation of new and modernized STEM facilities at Bates. The school announced the gift at a kickoff event for its $300 million Bates Campaign. Michael chairs the school's board of trustees and serves as one of three co-chairs of the fundraising campaign.

Bates is a traditional liberal arts school. Why did the Bonneys decide to go all-in on STEM education, and why now? "Different times require different skills from citizens," Michael Bonney said. "The residential liberal arts model is an enduring model, but it is not a static model."

He isn't alone in this line of thinking. Back in March, we reported on how Dale E. Fowler and his wife Sarah Ann gave Dale's alma mater, the Orange, California-based Chapman University, a $100-million commitment. A portion of the commitment—$45 million—will be earmarked for an engineering school. Fowler found success as one of the "major architects of Orange County," building, managing and leasing residential and industrial properties throughout the region.

It makes sense that the Bonneys and Fowler would push their alma maters towards STEM education. They have seen firsthand how the liberal arts help shape scientists, engineers and architects, and are deeply familiar with the ever-changing skillset of the digital economy workforce. And they realize that a focus on STEM skills can actually complement a traditional liberal arts education.

It's also understandable that STEM gifts like this can cause nervousness among some liberal arts alumni and faculty who fret that a college's mission and culture might be changed in favor of a more instrumentalist or pre-professional mindset. 

But remember, these are not either/or choices. There's plenty of room for a robust expansion of STEM studies in liberal arts colleges without losing what makes these schools special. Certainly Michael Bonney doesn't see his gift as conflicting with what Bates stands for. Quite the opposite. 

"We have an incredible set of forces working on the world today—some threatening—that are changing the way we interact and changing with whom we interact," he said. "Because of that, I believe that never in the history of the liberal arts tradition has a liberal arts education been more critical, when one thinks about the future of our society, than today."

The Bonneys' gift is but one component of the larger Bates Campaign. Additional goals include strengthening the college’s endowment by $160 million through professorships and endowed funds for financial aid and academic innovations, improving facilities, and increasing funding for programs focused on student success.

A $300 million capital campaign for a school with roughly 1,800 students may sound disproportionally bold, but it's the "new normal" in the higher ed space. In an America where some 70,000 households have assets of $30 million or more, with quite a bit of this money in the hands of older folks who are starting to think about their legacies, now's a good moment for even smaller institutions to be thinking big on the fundraising front. Also, as we often point out, this wealth can be found all over the country, and there's plenty of it in New England. Bonney, for example, made his fortune in the Boston area.