In his 1994 bestseller First Things First, management guru Steven R. Covey exhorts business leaders to "leave a legacy." It looks like more construction industry leaders are taking that kind of advice when it comes to giving big money for named university buildings and programs.

Real estate moguls and engineering and construction industry chieftains have been donating millions to relevant academia long before Covey’s exhortations. But this largesse has perhaps never been so critical. Colleges and universities need new facilities as they compete fiercely for top faculty, students and research dollars, just as state schools see their share of public funds decline. Without "privatization," many university expansion projects would take years or decades longer, or not happen at all.

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  • Larry Grosse, director of the construction management program at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, says the school now receives only 8.5% of its budget from the state. "It used to be 50%," he says. Colorado State and University of Colorado, Boulder, have seen their budgets drop 32% in the last six years, according to Grosse. But when the state budget allocation dips below 10%, it triggers a "free enterprise status" for state schools that allows some creative fundraising, he says. "I don’t teach anymore," says Grosse. "I’ve become a fundraiser."

    Most construction industry donors are true philanthropists seeking to reinvigorate an ailing alma mater or boost it to new heights in educational leadership. But in a business where ego looms large, there’s probably nothing more ego-boosting than seeing a firm’s name atop a college building or attached to a top program like the Del E. Webb School of Construction Management at Arizona State University, Tempe. While some donors readily come forward, others have to be coaxed, which can make the search a competitive and top-secret enterprise.

    Colorado State hopes to convince one major state-based construction executive to set up an endowment for its CM program, says Grosse. He declines to identify the potential donor but notes that the major gift would boost the program’s visibility on campus. "It’s how to get your name in front of the administrators," says Grosse. "You can do it through research. I’m doing it through development."

    In Their Shoes. Virginia Tech alumni Lawson (left) and Myers, both construction firm CEOs, celebrate their joint $10-million gift last October to finance a new construction school at the university. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech)

    One recent high-profile industry gift was received last October by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, known as Virginia Tech. Two fraternity brother alumni–A. Ross Myers, CEO of American Infrastructure, Worcester, Pa.; and John Lawson, president and CEO of W. M. Jordan, Newport News, Va.–gave a combined $10 million to establish the Myers-Lawson School of Construction.

    The new entity will integrate portions of Virginia Tech’s schools of engineering and architecture by fall 2006 to create a multidisciplinary school of construction. "There is a shortage of industry talent at all levels," says Lawson. The current disjointed approach to education creates a deficiency of "well rounded" graduates, he adds. "Construction is a very broad topic. You need vision and design skills, but also entrepreneurial skills coupled with ethics."

    Myers shares Lawson’s sense that construction must step up its recruiting efforts. "I get tired of sitting at association meetings hearing that we can’t find any good help," he says. "It’s time for our industry to put its money where its mouth is."

    Their money will fund three new faculty for the construction school, for a total of 14 with existing architecture and engineering positions. The combination will create a complete education, says Michael Vorster, the new school’s assistant director. "You cannot properly produce leadership for an industry of such breadth from one academic discipline," he says, comparing the school to "a classic construction joint venture."

    The Myers-Lawson gift validates the relevance of the program, says Vorster. "A university cannot lead from an ivory tower," he concedes. Industry’s financial support increases the chances of a school producing prepared graduates, according to the educator.

    Ross Myers has been involved with Virginia Tech for a decade. His goal now is to elevate it to national prominence. "Academics are usually only extraordinary when combined with industry vision," Myers says, adding that the new school will create a "value leadership-based curriculum" that incorporates ethics into all classes.

    "The goal was to avoid brain drain. Now there will be brain gain."
    — Winnie Callahan, executive director, Peter Kiewit Institute, Univ. of Nebraska-Omaha

    The University of Nebraska-Omaha is celebrating a $23-million gift received in August from Charles Durham, retired chairman of locally-based HDR Inc., to boost fundraising for a new $30-million architectural engineering and construction school to bear his name. "It will be the most comprehensive school for the built environment," says Winnie Callahan, executive director of the university’s Peter Kiewit Institute of Information Science, Technology and Engineering, of which the new school will be part.

    The university already enjoys considerable long-time support from the Omaha-based Kiewit organization and its former billionaire Chairman Walter Scott Jr. But Callahan says that with other large industry firms in the area, the school aims to seek more support from them for a "world class" educational operation in the heartland that will rival those on "the coasts." Says Callahan, "Omaha has a very unique spin on philanthropy. If something needs to be done, we don’t put it off."

    Auburn, Ala.-based Auburn University’s Building Science Dept. is pleased with industry response to its expansion needs, says department head John Murphy. Its $9.4-million new headquarters is 80% privately funded, but he also declines to release donor names. "We are much better funded than any other discipline in the university," says Murphy.

    Donor. Retired paver Thompson (right) now funds inner-city charter schools. (Photo courtesy of the Thompson Foundation)

    But the industry-academia lovefest does not always last forever. Michigan road paving entrepreneur Bob Thompson, who received close to $500 million, and shared a lot of it, when he sold Thompson-McCully Co. in 1999, became a major academic benefactor. But he complains that it was hard to know exactly what his money accomplished. "You couldn’t ever measure it," says Thompson. "We were writing checks to schools with no accountability. I had been in a business where you always measured."

    Thompson’s foundation now funds private school scholarships for inner-city children in Detroit and builds new charter elementary and middle schools there. "Here’s something where you can make a tangible difference," Thompson says. "Kids come out of here and get an education."