"A Driving Force." Meet the Donor With Big Plans for a Public University's B-School

UTC. Photo: Kenneth Sponsler/shutterstock

UTC. Photo: Kenneth Sponsler/shutterstock

Our most recent installment of regional higher ed mega-giving comes to us from Chattanooga, where the University of Tennessee (UTC) received a $40 million gift from Atlanta couple Gary W. Rollins and Kathleen Rollins.

The gift, which is the largest in UTC's history, will be earmarked for creating and supporting applied research opportunities, scholarships, recruitment of faculty, classroom renovations, computer labs, offices and common areas in Fletcher Hall, home of the business college.

The UTC board of trustees voted unanimously to rename the college as the Gary W. Rollins College of Business.

The gift is another example of public universities giving their private brethren a run for their money when it comes to securing mega-gifts. What's more, Gary Rollins' backstory maps closely to the emerging psychographic profile of regional higher ed mega-donors. Rollins is a UTC alumnus who made his millions in the legacy industry of consumer and commercial services. And like many other higher ed mega-donors as of late, Rollins has had a relatively light philanthropic footprint.

I'll take a closer look at Rollins momentarily. But first, I'd like to frame his gift within its larger philanthropic context.

One of the big themes across higher ed philanthropy as of late is how state universities, faced with stingy or cash-strapped legislatures, are leaning more heavily on private donors for support. For instance, last year, the University of Maryland (U-Md) received a $219 million gift from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation to expand scholarships, endow new faculty positions, and fund investments in buildings and programs at U-Md's flagship school.

U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh said the gift reflected the new fiscal reality for public flagships across the country. To contain tuition increases, he said, public university leaders must emulate their private counterparts and work harder to cultivate philanthropic support.

Public schools soliciting private dollars is "the overall pattern," said Loh. "It’s a pretty accurate description of what’s happening nationwide."

Similarly, the University of Illinois, which has experienced some of the deepest budget cuts of any state school, received a $150 million gift from alumnus Larry Gies. "More and more, you're going to see philanthropy as a greater part of the financial model for public universities, as it's always been a part of the financial model for private universities," said University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Robert J. Jones.

We're seeing a similar dynamic play out in the Volunteer State.

In late June, the University of Tennessee trustees approved a $2.42 billion budget

Besides passing the budget and doling out a bonus to President Joe DiPietro, the big topic of discussion was "a number of monumental donations" to the system. In addition to Rollins' $40 million gift, trustees also called attention to James and Judith Herbert's "transformational gift" to the Institute of Agriculture. (Trustees did not disclose the sum.)

Most encouragingly, trustees also approved a motion that will keep tuition flat at UT Knoxville and Chattanooga. (Tuition will increase, however, 3 percent at UT Martin.) According to system officials, it's the first time any of UT's campuses have see tuition rates halt since 1984.

All of which brings me back to Gary Rollins.

A 1967 UTC graduate with a B.S. degree in business, Rollins is the vice chairman and CEO of Rollins, Inc., the U.S.'s largest pest control conglomerate. It's the parent company of Orkin, Inc., and according to a recent profile in Forbes, business is booming. In April 2017, Orkin reported its 44th consecutive quarter of sales and earnings growth. Forbes pegs Rollins' net worth at $4.6 billion.

As previously mentioned, Rollins doesn't have an extensive record of giving, at least as far as publicly available information is concerned. That clearly hasn't dissuaded him or other regional mega-donors from making a massive gift to propel a university into the upper echelons of a given field.

Recent examples of this kind of "step change philanthropy" include Susan and Henry Samueli $200 million gift for a new health program dedicated to integrative medicine at the University of California, Irvine, and Dr. Kiran Patel and his wife, Dr. Pallavi Patel's series of gifts to the Ft. Lauderdale-based Nova Southeastern University.

According to UTC, Rollins felt the school's College of Business "has the credentials and accomplishments to become recognized as a national leader in business education and applied business research."

"The UTC College of Business, under Dean Robert Dooley’s leadership and fully supported by Chancellor Steve Angle, has a history of success built around community involvement that offers students hands-on experience and, ultimately, a stronger opportunity to be job-ready upon graduation," Rollins said.

"At the same time, the College of Business has been a driving force in helping the Chattanooga region’s economic growth which, in turn, has made southeastern Tennessee one of the nation’s most desirable destinations."