Simple Gifts

By Marcia Goodrich

Karl Evenson hadn’t expected to hear his name called during the big welcome-to-Michigan Tech address the University holds for all new students in August. And as he loped down to the floor of the multipurpose room from the top of the bleachers, his excitement was evident.

Later, the freshman from Mahtomedi, Minnesota, explained why. "It felt really nice to have some security as to how I’m going to pay for my books," he says. "This semester, they were about $725. Books are kind of expensive."

The money—a check for $1,000—came from a group of people who could empathize about the cost of textbooks. "Last spring, all graduating students were given the opportunity to make a gift before leaving campus," says Paula Nutini, director of annual giving for the Michigan Tech Fund. "That allowed them to pay tribute to someone in the commencement program. If they gave ten dollars, then they could thank Mom and Dad for their support, and their parents and grandparents could read it in the stands.

"We took all the proceeds and put them in a scholarship we presented to an incoming student at orientation," she says. "[Michigan Tech] President Glenn Mroz drew the name from a box. It was totally random."

All those little gifts added up to enough to solve one student’s big problem. That shows the power of giving, and Nutini hopes it will inspire next year’s Class of 2012 to invest in even more thank-you notes to their parents. "It would be great to give out two scholarships next summer," she says.

A gift of freedom

Michigan Tech had only four endowed faculty positions when the Generations of Discovery Capital Campaign began. That needed to change; endowments are one of the best ways to attract great faculty members and keep them here. Now, the University has seventeen endowed chairs and professorships and hopes to add more.

Among the recipients is Gordon Parker. He fills the new John and Cathi Drake Endowed Professorship in Mechanical Engineering, which the Drake family funded through a $1 million gift.

"It’s been incredible," says Parker, a winner of the Michigan Tech Distinguished Teaching Award and a highly productive researcher.

Unless you are immersed in academia, you probably don’t know how much a faculty member’s career can revolve around the search for money. Funding from corporations, government agencies, and foundations drives most research in engineering and the sciences. And in the absence of support, a promising area of inquiry can languish.

Endowments change all that. "The funds from the professorship have allowed me to do some really interesting exploratory work," says Parker. "All my other funds are tied to deliverables, like reports, but I can use these just to explore topics that could lead to wonderful things."

The Drake Professorship is supporting two projects by underwriting the expenses of graduate students, who serve as research assistants. "And because the funds support my students, it’s not just me who benefits," says Parker.

In one project, his team is investigating ways to improve microgrids: modern, small-scale electrical grids that serve a community, office park, university, or similar entity. In the other, they study wind-turbine controls, with an eye toward offshore wind-energy production.

The Drake funds are "seed corn," he says, giving enough heft and credibility to a line of inquiry to attract outside support. Parker's microgrid research has already received significant funding from Sandia National Labs.

John Drake is a longtime supporter of Michigan Tech, but his giving is not automatic. "The thing that sold me on the endowed professorship was not just basic loyalty to Tech," he said. "I’ve seen Bill [Predebon, chair of mechanical engineering–engineering mechanics] giving the department a new direction, a good direction."

Drake earned two degrees from the University, a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in 1964 and a master’s in business administration in 1969. Not long after, he founded Drake Manufacturing Services, in Warren, Ohio. In 2007, he sold his successful business and used some of the proceeds to finance the John and Cathi Drake Endowed Professorship.

"Cathi and I worked with Bill and Eric [Halonen, director of major and planned giving], and they demonstrated that there was a need," he said. "Plus, this was a way for us to do something in our lifetime, rather than wait until we were gone."

For his part, Parker says, "I always like to express my thanks to the Drakes, not only John and Cathi but the whole family. It’s a humbling and profound experience to have their name next to my door. And it’s a big responsibility. After me, there will be other John and Cathi Drake Professors, and I want to leave a good legacy."

Building for now and later

Generations of Discovery: The Campaign for Michigan Tech is built on small gifts and large, and every one counts. They all drive the University closer to its ambitious goal of raising $200 million by June 30, 2013. But there is more to this fundraising effort than raising funds.

"There are really two purposes to the campaign," says Shea McGrew, the executive director of the Michigan Tech Fund. "One is obvious: we want to raise a certain amount of money for current priorities that will help us realize the goals of our strategic plan.

"The less obvious part is to put in place a strong culture of giving among alumni and current students. We don’t have much choice if we want to maintain our quality. As our public funding goes down, we need to replace it with giving from individuals, corporations, and foundations."

The main thrust of the campaign has been to build the University’s endowment, which is primarily made up of gifts designed for scholarships, fellowships, and endowed professorships and chairs. In particular, the campaign is focused on endowing faculty positions, like the Drake Endowed Professorship.

"It’s right there in our strategic plan," says McGrew. "We want to bring in good people and support them. You can’t have a great university without a great faculty, and that’s what endowed faculty positions support."

Student support is a close second, both endowed scholarships and immediate gifts, like that provided by the Class of 2011. "This does not mean that we aren’t trying to fund capital projects," McGrew stressed. Some of the campaign’s biggest successes are capital projects built entirely with private donations, like the new Seaman Mineral Museum building and the Paul and Susan Williams Center for Computer Systems Research. "But the overarching goal is to support people."

Among those people, of course, is freshman Karl Evenson.

"The scholarship has definitely made my life easier; I’d like to thank those graduates who gave the ten dollars. When I graduate from Michigan Tech," he promises, "I’ll do the same."

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.