“Awestruck.” Behind a Regional Funder's Historic Gift to a Public University's Engineering School

Engineering Hall at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.   Ken Wolter/shutterstock

Engineering Hall at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Ken Wolter/shutterstock

One of the more compelling narratives in the higher ed fundraising boom sweeping the country finds universities raising piles of cash to support engineering programs. Donors have earmarked millions for some of the nation’s most elite engineering schools, including Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, the University of Washington, UC Berkeley and MIT.

News out of Illinois shows us what happens when strong funder interest dovetails with surging regional philanthropy and an ambitious fundraising campaign. The Grainger Foundation announced a new $100 million gift and more than $300 million in total support for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering. In recognition of the commitment, the college will be renamed the Grainger College of Engineering.

According to the university, the foundation’s total support represents the largest amount ever given to a public university to name a college of engineering, with more than $200 million provided in the last six years. In addition, the new gift is unrestricted, meaning college officials have free rein on where to spend the money.

“I’m awestruck. These things don’t happen that often,” U. of I. Provost Andreas Cangellaris said. “There are so many opportunities and ideas that our faculty is coming up with. You always look for that flexible source of money that will allow you to seek those initiatives and turn them into big successes, not only for engineering but for the entire campus.”

The STEM Gold Rush Rolls On

The Grainger Foundation is the latest in a long line of big-ticket gifts earmarked for engineering schools.

Last July, the German chemical company BASF SE gave UC Berkeley $7 million toward the construction of a new state-of-the-art research science facility. A few months later, Stephen Schwarzman gave MIT $350 million to establish a new College of Computing that will include a new building serving as a hub for computer science, AI and data science. A few months after that, the Allegheny Foundation gave Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) $30 million, the largest gift in the foundation’s history, earmarked for the construction of its new Scaife Hall for the College of Engineering.

And earlier this year, the University of Washington opened the Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science and & Engineering. With a price tag of $110 million, roughly $70 million in funding came from donors such as the Zillow Group, Microsoft, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Amazon and more than 300 Allen School alumni.

As for the Grainger gift, Rashid Bashir, dean of the Grainger College of Engineering, said the money will enable faculty and leadership to pursue multiple major initiatives simultaneously. Among the priorities he identified were boosting research, broadening the undergraduate programs and ramping up recruitment of students from underrepresented groups.

Surging Demand

The proliferation of STEM gifts follows a 2018 study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute that found the STEM skills gap may leave an estimated 2.4 million positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028, with a potential economic impact of $2.5 trillion. The study also shows that the positions relating to “digital talent, skilled production, and operational managers” may be three times as difficult to fill in the next three years.

Some commentators have raised questions about this alleged gap since the term STEM covers everything from computer engineering to life sciences. Case Western Reserve University's Peter E. Knox went so far as to claim that “there’s simply no evidence that the U.S. lacks the scientists or engineers it needs, as many donors claim.”

Still, donors keep stepping forward with big gifts to help schools expand their STEM offerings. Most of these funders hail from the business world and have first-hand experience with trying to recruit skilled employees.

For instance, last year, the University of Maryland Board of Regents approved the construction of a major new engineering facility. Roughly half of the cost will be paid by a $219 million donation from the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation.

The foundation is named after A. James Clark, who died in March 2015. As the chairman and CEO of Clark Enterprises, Clark was a major figure in construction and development in the Washington region. Clark Enterprises’ largest subsidy, the $4 billion Clark Construction Group, LLC, is one of the U.S.’s largest construction companies. Notable projects include two dozen Washington, D.C. Metro stations, the World Bank Group building, FedEx Field, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Verizon Center and Salesforce Tower.

So when the foundation’s site argues that “engineers are problem-solvers, and we believe the world needs more of them,” I’m inclined to believe them.

Reliable Regional Support

The Grainger Foundation is also well-positioned to gauge future demand for STEM skills. Its corporate parent, WW Grainger, is a $10 billion industrial supply company with a formidable digital presence and over 25,000 employees worldwide. The Grainger Foundation, which began providing support to the Grainger College of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1979, is deeply attuned to the ebbs and flows of the engineering sector.

All of which brings me to another key ingredient of these these big-ticket engineering gifts—the expanding ambition of regional funders seeking to propel recipient universities to the national stage.

Back in 2014, we looked at a gift from David W. Grainger to another Midwest engineering state school, University of Wisconsin-Madison. David Grainger is the son of company founder William W. Grainger. At the time, we said the funder “keeps a low profile, but has built up assets of nearly a half-billion dollars.”

Fast-forward to 2019. Having made a historic and unrestricted gift to a public university in the middle of the country, the foundation’s profile has clearly grown. Also consider David Grainger’s comments on the gift. “All of us here at the Grainger Foundation are delighted that this gift will further strengthen one of the most distinguished engineering schools in the world,” he said, suggesting that there’s nothing stopping the University of Illinois from competing with MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon.

Lastly, it’s also no coincidence that these kinds of historic gifts come amid ambitious fundraising campaigns at state universities. UI’s effort comes as other public schools, including the University of Michigan, the University of Houston, University of Alabama, the University of Arizona, the University of Virginia, the University of Oregon and the University of Florida have either exceeded or launched eye-popping campaigns.

The University of Illinois is in the middle of a five-year, $3.04 billion campaign for its three campuses. UI’s goal for its engineering school alone is $550 million, school leaders said, and nearly 85 percent of that has been raised with the addition of the Grainger gift.