Universities Big on Science Pull in the Big Bucks. Exhibit A: Caltech

Wealthy corporate elites everywhere seem to have gotten the same memo: America needs to beef up the math and science chops of its young people or it's going to be a second-rate nation down the line. Learn calculus now or our kids will have to learn Mandarin later. 

We write all the time about the many corporate foundations pouring STEM money into K-12 and higher ed. But there's another dimension to this giving spree: Rich individual donors pumping big bucks into top science campuses, and we've reported on a slew of gifts going to top universities engaged in cutting-edge research. 

In fact, while we don't have any hard data on this, it seems that the biggest winners of the STEM craze have a been a handful of the nation's most prestigious science universities. One school that's been doing well lately is Caltech, a place that produced 33 Nobel Prize winners over the years.

I recently wrote about a big unrestricted $50 million gift to Caltech from alumnus Ronald Linde and his wife Maxine. It's the kind of gift that universities and nonprofits dream about, a huge reserve of money to be spent without restrictions. A combination of alumni loyalty, a long trail of giving, and decades-long involvement in Caltech's leadership tells the story in that instance.

Now, another nice gift has been given to Caltech, this time to pump up its physics, mathematics and astronomy (known as PMA). Oh, and the gift comes from someone who didn't go to the Southern California school at all.

Interesting. How did that come about? 

First, the news: Kent Kresa recently gave a $10 million to Caltech's division of PMA. The gift will establish a leadership chair, the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair, which will be held by B. Thomas Soifer. Soifer and PMA will then have $10 million in unrestricted funds to support "groundbreaking projects." Soifer sums up the potential of these kinds of gifts: "For years, I've kept a wish list—literally a black notebook on my desk—where I capture the most exciting ideas I hear from faculty and students... this gift will transform notes like those into tangible realities."

A key component here seems to be trust, not only in the university but in its faculty and the quality of research being done. For instance, in a recent gift to Northwestern I wrote about, an alum got drawn into compelling regenerative nanomedicine research after interfacing with a star professor. But how exactly does a university get to that point, particularly when, in this case, Kresa didn't even go to Caltech but to a rival school on the other side of the country, MIT?

While Kresa went to MIT, where he earned a B.S., M.S., and E.A.A., all in aeronautics and astronautics, he went on to work at Northrop Grumman for 28 years, ultimately serving as its chair, president, and CEO.

If there's one thing you learning running a big aerospace company like that it's that America's pool of workers with strong STEM skills is woefully weak. Indeed, as we often note, corporate and tech funders come to the STEM field because of their own struggles in finding highly skilled workers. 

Meanwhile, it's no secret that science and technology can help power local economies, and Kresa clearly cares about Los Angeles, where he's been a longtime resident. He and his late wife Joyce are heavily involved in civic life. Joyce had a passion for the arts, serving on the board of the LA Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic and as president of the Blue Ribbon, a supporting organization for the Music Center.

In addition, Kresa and Joyce founded the Kresa Foundation in 2005. Over the years the pair has given to Los Angeles institutions such as UCLA Anderson School of Management, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, and the Music Center of Los Angeles County. Oh, and by the way, Kresa served for 21 years as a trustee at Caltech, chairing the board between 2005 and 2012. He also cofounded Caltech's new Space Innovation Council.

We've seen this many times before: A moneyed philanthropist stiffs their alma mater in favor of a school in their adopted region. Which is why we stress how important it is for university development operations to look beyond alums to wealthy locals. 

Related - Think Locally: How This Law School Landed $50 Million from a Donor Who Didn't Go There

It also seems fitting that Kresa, given his background, would gravitate toward Caltech. It's the West Coast equivalent of MIT (or MIT is the East Coast equivalent of Caltech, if you'd prefer). Whatever the case, it's clear that Kresa found a home at Caltech.

Note that Kresa has given to the school in the past. In 2009, Kresa and Joyce endowed the Joyce and Kent Kresa Professorship in Engineering and Applied Science with a $2 million gift. Here, too, is another obvious lesson: Past giving often predicts future giving.  

Related - Seven Ways Any College Can Get In On the STEM Gold Rush