How Did This Public University Off the Beaten Path Score a Huge Gift for STEM?

photo: dotshock/shutterstock

photo: dotshock/shutterstock

News out of Gunnison, Colorado suggests that as long as there is local demand for STEM skills, donors will happily fill the void.

Paul M. Rady, the CEO and chairman of the board of Colorado-based oil exploration and production company Antero Resources, gave Western State Colorado University $80 million to create the Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering. It’s the largest gift in the university’s history and the latest example of donors cutting huge checks to public schools located far from affluent coastal enclaves.

Much of the state university’s STEM offerings flow through its flagship school, UC Boulder, home to the Center for STEM Learning. The Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering alters this equation to the benefit of UC students, according to Western State President Gary Salsbury.

“It expands CU's ability to serve more of the state,” he said. “It provides an opportunity to a larger number of students to enter this rapidly growing world of computer science and technology.”

Bobby Braun, the dean of CU Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, concurred, noting, “this partnership is good for the economic competitiveness of our state and will allow CU to continue to expand our reach across the Western Slope.”

Given the amount of money flowing to what Salsbury called a “rapidly growing world,” it’s easy to assume that there’s demand for it. But research suggests it’s a little more complicated than that. Why? For starters, the term STEM casts a wide net. Demand often isn’t distributed equally. A recent study found that in the decade ending in 2024, 73 percent of STEM job growth will be in computer occupations, while only 3 percent will be in the physical sciences and 3 percent in the life sciences.

Writing in The Conversation, Case Western Reserve University's Peter E. Knox argued that “there’s simply no evidence that the U.S. lacks the scientists or engineers it needs, as many donors claim.”

Paul M. Rady would beg to differ. And his arguments underscore that when it comes to STEM skills, demand is highly localized—and it’s this reality that donors are focusing on.

Surging Demand

The University of Washington’s (UW) efforts to create a “top-tier computer science program” provides a good example of tech donors helping to meet the demand for STEM workers in the Pacific Northwest.

Two years ago, Amazon awarded a $10 million gift to help UW complete a computer science and engineering building on its Seattle campus. The project has received additional support from Microsoft and Zillow. A year later, the school announced a $50 million endowment gift to establish the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. The endowment comes in the form of $40 million from Allen, enhanced by a gift of $10 million from the Microsoft Corporation in Allen’s honor.

UW computer science professor and fundraiser Ed Lazowska summed up the situation succinctly: “The enrollment demand is tremendous, the employment demand is tremendous.”

The UW case study is somewhat anomalous given its breadth, but the takeaway is nonetheless applicable to the Rady gift: Demand isn’t just local; it’s also relative. No one will be confusing Gunnison with Seattle, Boston or San Jose anytime soon, but Colorado—and the Western Slope region in particular—is rapidly emerging as a high-tech powerhouse where the demand for STEM workers is very real.

According to the Colorado Workforce Development Council, there were more than 15 job openings in the state for every technology-related worker in 2016.

This shortfall is more or less equivalent to the national ratio of 13 to one. (South Dakota, on the other hand, has a staggering ratio of 71.5 STEM openings for every unemployed tech worker. It’s no wonder Giving Pledge signatory T. Denny Sanford contributed to a $30 million commitment to fund the construction of the Madison Cyber Labs at South Dakota University earlier this year.)

Boulder, meanwhile, located about 200 miles to the northeast, has a robust tech scene that also draws significant donor support. A couple of months before Rady’s commitment, Google announced a $1.5 million grant in support of the UC Boulder’s global STEM education project, PhET Interactive Simulations.

Zoom out even further, and you’ll see that the demand for STEM jobs coincides with the state’s dizzying economic growth. Colorado’s economy over the past year was already running at a 4.5 percent growth rate in the first quarter, outpacing the national rate of 4.1 percent.

Looking ahead, the state should add 3 million new residents over the next 30 or so years, with the biggest growth expected in the northern part of the state and—you guessed it—the Western Slope. State officials predict the region will grow by two-thirds by 2050.

Meanwhile, the Denver and Boulder metro areas will add 1.39 million people, the most of any region, a gain of 45.4 percent, albeit at a slower pace. Coincidentally, Rady’s gift came a few weeks after fellow Coloradans Philip and Nancy Anschutz announced a $120 million commitment to Denver’s UC Anschutz Medical Campus to accelerate its development as one of the most prominent academic medical campuses in the U.S.

The surge in regional philanthropy often runs on a parallel track with the increasing financial fortunes of the state or region, creating a kind of virtual cycle of giving, and the Centennial State provides an instructive case study in real time.

A Changing STEM Donor Profile

Rady graduated from Western Colorado in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in geology. In addition to the $80 million he donated to Western State, he also gave $10 million to CU to support one $5 million geological sciences endowed chair and two $2.5 million engineering endowed chairs.

And that’s about all I could find in terms of Rady’s past and present giving, making him a bit of an outlier as far as regional mega-donors are concerned. More often than not, these donors signal their intentions, making a massive mega-gift after years of steady support. (This isn’t to say Rady hasn’t provided previous support for Western State; rather, evidence of such support wasn’t readily available as compared to similar regional mega-donors.)

Conventional wisdom suggests that Rady’s is also an outlier in terms of his professional background. He hails from the oil extraction and production world, while most major STEM funders typically—and not surprisingly—come from the engineering, science and high-tech side of the tracks.

A review of recent high-profile STEM gifts, however, suggests that STEM donors are a surprisingly diverse lot.

Last year, Dale and Sarah Ann Fowler announced a $100 commitment to the Orange, CA-based Chapman University, $45 million of which was earmarked for an engineering school. Fowler is the founder of Fowler Properties, an Anaheim real estate investment and management firm.

And earlier this year, Richard Resch, CEO and chairman of Green Bay-based office furniture manufacturer KI, made a $5 million gift to the University of Wisconsin’s Mechanical Engineering program.

While neither donor hails from the high-tech world, they’re united in the belief that a STEM education can—to quote Resch—cultivate “the next generation of leaders in innovation.”

Meanwhile, a few months back, Exelon, the Chicago-based energy firm, announced support for the STEM Innovation Leadership Academy for teen girls. As I noted at the time, Exelon’s consistent support for STEM initiatives shouldn’t come as a huge surprise—energy companies rely on tech-savvy workers more than many people realize.

What’s more, research suggests demand for STEM workers in the energy field is—surprise!—also growing.

Last year, the RAND Corporation published a study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute finding that while the oil and natural gas sector will create a great many new job opportunities through 2035, a STEM bachelor’s degree nearly doubles the likelihood of working in the industry. (A lot of the industry’s growth is due to the widespread adoption of fracking, which, as it turns out, is the primary extraction technique employed by Rady’s Antero Resources.)

Throw in a strong economy, a tight labor market, and, in the case of Colorado, the fact that oil and gas are among the state’s fastest growing sectors, it’s easy to see why an energy executive like Rady is so bullish on STEM education: Not only is it good for students, it’s also good for business.

“Western is perfectly positioned to build on its academic strengths by incorporating high-level, career-focused computer science and engineering programs,” Rady said upon announcing his gift, before dropping the pervasive “d” word: demand.

“Our state needs this kind of next-generation thinking in higher education. There is tremendous demand for young computer scientists and engineers throughout our state and nation. I’m proud to be partnering with Western Colorado University and the University of Colorado to help make it happen.”