Donors Give $7 Million to Endow Chairs, Professorship

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

Two families have donated major gifts to Michigan Technological University that will fund three endowed faculty chairs and an endowed professorship, as well as several other projects.

Richard and Bonnie Robbins, of Seattle, have created the Robbins Chairs of Sustainability, including a Chair in Sustainable Manufacturing and Design, a Chair in Sustainable Use of Materials, and a Chair in Sustainable Management of the Environment.

A total of $6 million, the primary endowment for the chairs, has been committed through a charitable trust that will ultimately come to Michigan Tech. In the interim, the Robbinses have directed that the three chairs each be supported through a $20,000 annual payment. The $60,000 total will be provided yearly through the $700,000 Robbins Fund, which is part of the Michigan Tech Fund. An endowment is a permanently held and invested fund that produces earnings each year to be spent, in this case to support faculty positions.

William and Gloria Jackson, of Paradise Valley, Ariz., have donated $1 million to establish the William and Gloria Jackson Professorship Endowed Fund. They have also given an additional $100,000 gift to jump-start the recruitment and hiring of an exceptional faculty member to fill the post, which will focus on bridging information technology and entrepreneurship.

“These are transformational gifts,” said Michigan Tech President Glenn Mroz. “Through their generosity and foresight, the Jackson and Robbins families are playing a key role in the university’s strategic effort to reshape itself as a premiere university. These endowed positions will help Michigan Tech attract and retain top faculty members who will create the future, both through educating our students and though excellence in research.”

Mr. Jackson, a graduate of Calumet High School, earned his BS in Electrical Engineering in 1958 and took classes in engineering administration, which served him well as he advanced in his career. He went on to establish the cable television company CableAmerica Corp, a telecommunications provider in Arizona with systems in nine states. The Arizona facilities were acquired by Cox Communications in 2006. Three systems in Missouri are still maintained by the original company.

The Jackson’s endowed professorship is set up to support “an exceptional scholar and teacher whose expertise and activity bridges the disciplines of computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and business entrepreneurship.”

“In many cases, engineers reach a point in their careers where they move from the technical, nuts-and-bolts side of industry to the business aspects,” said Mr. Jackson, whose own career illustrates that shift. “Michigan Tech needs to be educating students who will be prepared for that evolution in their careers.”

Mrs. Jackson played an active role in developing the endowed professorship. She is a graduate of Northern Michigan University and serves on the Global Council of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, the Finlandia University Board of Trustees, and on the board of the Northern Michigan University Foundation “Education is my hot button,” she said. “I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and education is very important to me.”

Mr. Robbins graduated from Michigan Tech in 1956 with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. He joined the Robbins Company, which was founded by his father, in 1958, and assumed leadership of the firm when his father died three months later. The company has been responsible for a string of breakthroughs and records in tunnel-boring technology, including the boring of the "chunnel"--three huge tunnels under the English Channel. Robbins sold the company to Atlas Copco and now is president of The Robbins Group, which provides R&D services to the parent company.

Establishing the Robbins Chairs in Sustainability was a natural fit, Mr. Robbins said. “My wife and I both consider ourselves environmentalists, and we also support sustainability,” he said.

The chairs will not be tied to any specific department, though the couple consulted with William Predebon, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics, as they developed their criteria.

“Faculty are doing great things in many fields--chemical engineering, geology, power systems, forestry--that relate to environmental sustainability,” Mr. Robbins said. “My wife and I are very excited about the potential these chairs give to Michigan Tech and the structure they bring to our giving.”

"We wanted to influence the future of Michigan Tech in a most visionary way,” said Mrs. Robbins. “Sustainability is one of the most vital aspects of a healthy future, especially as it relates to the environment, which is my particular interest. We felt that talented professors have the greatest impact on students. Therefore we chose to fund chairs that would insure the presence of outstanding professors who understand the importance of sustainability in an evolving world."

In addition, Mr. and Mrs. Robbins are providing $250,000 to help construct a new home for the Seaman Mineral Museum at the site of the Quincy Mine Hoist in the Keweenaw National Historical Park. “The mineral museum is a marvelous asset to Michigan Tech,” said Mr. Robbins, who plans to donate his smoky quartz collection to the museum.

Their gift also includes $25,000 to start a campaign to fund lighting for night skiing on the Michigan Tech Nordic Ski Trails and another $25,000 to support improvements at Mont Ripley.

“I was on the ski team at Tech,” Mr. Robbins recalls. “I was never good enough to letter, but I had a lot of fun.” The university’s cross-country team has competed very successfully nationally, he noted, and would benefit from the additional training time lighted trails would provide. He expressed hope that his gift will inspire others to support the project.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 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.