Gifts to engineering school fuel growth

The School of Engineering and Applied Science has doubled its endowment to $19.2 million over the last four years, helping to pay for a flood of new faculty, scholarships and a pricey new building.

As the University hypes up a new era for the engineering program, big goals and big investments seem to be paying off. The rapidly growing pool of funds has helped prop up new programs, a larger first-year class and dozens of new professors at the school with the third-smallest endowment.

About a quarter of engineering school alumni donated last fiscal year, an 11 percent increase from two years ago, according to recently released data. The school has rallied donors through heightened fundraising efforts that tell the story of the “tremendous growth happening at SEAS these days,” Dean David Dolling said.

“People generally like to be part of a ‘winning team,’ but sometimes the early-stage growth doesn’t make headlines. So it’s our job to tell people about our successes and let them know just how significant the changes are here at SEAS,” Dolling said.

The financial success also marks a major turnaround for a school that was losing money five years ago, brought down by dilapidated facilities, paltry research funding and slagging enrollment.

The school has looked to promote its recent growth by connecting students with alumni mentors, hosting more alumni events and giving its alumni association a voice in planning for the school’s future.

Dolling said these ties have allowed him to show off achievements such as a record first-year class of undergraduates, 37 new professors in four years, 40 percent more research expenditures so far this year and plans for a $275 million, 480,000 square-foot building. But the school still has work to do to gain prestige, at only No. 85 on the U.S. News & World Report ranking of best undergraduate engineering programs, making investments and donations critical.

“Engineers understand that you often need to look at things in relationship to each other – how the various parts interact with and affect the others – and they see that an investment in one area can reinforce and positively affect another area,” Dolling said.

The financial surge in the engineering school comes as the University has only fundraised about $6 million of the $100 million, as of December, needed to pay for the Science and Engineering Hall, the most expensive campus building to date. GW will pay for the rest of the $275 million building through lease payments from The Avenue and recoveries of the overhead costs of research.

While the University has courted big donors and corporations to give to the building, which will open in 2015, some are opting to give to programs instead.

Construction mogul James Clark, Forbes magazine’s No. 328 richest man in America, donated $8 million two years ago to build an undergraduate engineering scholarship program. Clark’s company, Clark Construction, is under contract to build the 14-floor hall.

“What’s ironic is that he’s building the building, but he didn’t give money to the building. He gave money to the program,” Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz said. “Everybody has something where they think they can make the biggest difference. Everyone wants to give money to something that they think will make a difference, even if it’s not our preconceived notion.”

Katz added that the school will embrace the money whether it’s for the hall or for academic programs. Buildings are a one-time expense, he said, while program costs are ongoing, making those donations just as critical.

The school’s development office has also strived to forge ties with corporations to win big gifts. Companies like Lockheed Martin, IBM, Rolls Royce and Ford Motor Company all gave more than $1 million recently.

Provost Steven Lerman said in December that the building’s construction, which the Board of Trustees approved in 2010, was “instrumental” to the upsurge in donations.

“We have had some donors say that the building changed their mind. That’s the one concrete anecdote we’ve heard more than once,” Lerman said.

To appeal to other potential donors, Dolling said, the school is focusing on matching them with priorities that fit their interests. For some, this might include new scholarship programs or naming opportunities.

Francis Cevasco, who earned his Master of Science degree in civil engineering in 1970, said he gives back annually to thank the school for an education that has helped him even in a career as an international analyst.

Cevasco said he planned to donate regardless of the new building, and is not sure whether his donations will go to the construction. He said he thinks the building might spur other alumni to do so.

“Some people are willing to contribute just because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Others like to see physical manifestations of where their money is going.”

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