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How Cornell Got $150 Million From A Billionaire

Fisk Johnson, chairman and CEO of SC Johnson, gave $150 million to the newly named SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University

‘IT WAS CLEAR TO ME THE SCHOOLS WERE AT A LITTLE BIT OF A CROSSROADS’

Fisk agrees. “When the combined college was annouced, it was clear to me the schools were at a little bit of a crossroads, expecially considering some of the controversy and surprise of that decision,” says Fisk. “I really believed the business program here had a huge opportunity in front of it and there couldn’t be a better time to give this gift.”

Dutta says the discussions for the gift had been ongoing for at least six months, but the details were nailed down during the second week of January. The negotiations for the gift, says Dutta, were handled by the university president’s office. “I heard back from the president’s office with the final confirmation and couldn’t have been more delighted.”

It is the kind of gift business school deans can only dream of. All $150 million of the gift is unrestricted, explains Dutta. Some $100 million will go into the school’s endowment to support everything from faculty recruitment and retention in both Ithaca and the school’s new campus in New York City to expanded student scholarship money and new programs in and outside the main campus. Currently, Dyson, Hotel, and Johnson combined have an endowment valued at $426 million.

OVERALL, THE GIFT COULD BOOST A $426 MILLION ENDOWMENT TO $676 MILLION

One new immediate initiative is the SC Johnson Scholars program, which will initially benefit a cohort of six undergraduates, three each in Dyson and the School of Hotel Administration. The program will create academic and experiential opportunities that enhance general coursework, including access to SC Johnson-sponsored immersion programs, mentoring and workshops; domestic and international internships; and shadowing opportunities.

The remaining $50 million will go toward a challenge grant initiative to further support faculty and students and promote innovative programs. “That part of the gift is to be used with matching funds to help inspire others to give on a one-to-three basis,” says Dutta. “We think it could generate another $150 million so the total impact of the gift could be $300 million.” Combined with endowment gifts from those who respond to the challenge, the college could raise its $426 million endowment to $676 million.

No less crucial, the “once-in-a-lifetime gift” puts to rest any lingering controversy about the merger. “What’s critical at this moment is that it gives a very positive boost to the whole college formation process,” explains Dutta. “It shows that a key donor family believes in it (the merger). So it provides a big psychological and emotional boost.”

‘ORDER THE LARGE GREEK SALAD WITH EXTRA FETA’

With the money comes expectations and a bit of pressure for another kind of boost. Besides insuring that the three-to-one matching plan raises the additional $150 million, there’s the expectation that Cornell’s College of Business improve its standing against rivals. Fisk himself says he expects the gift to help the school “rise even higher into the echelon of top-tier schools in the world.” In Poets&Quantslatest ranking of full-time MBA programs, Cornell’s Johnson School ranks 14th. To climb higher up and into a top ten list, Johnson would have to pass Michigan, Virginia, Duke, and Yale. That is no small feat.

Amidst the hoopla of the ceremonies at Statler Auditorium  on Jan. 31, which included an appearance by the Big Red Marching Band, Fisk seemed to glow with pride. “My many years at Cornell were one of the most rewarding and enriching periods of my life,” he told the crowd. “It changed me in a lasting way that left me richer in knowledge, sharper in mind, stronger in character and believing in life’s possibilties.”

In the audience were Johnson family members, students and faculty, Fisk’s Chi Psi fraternity brothers—and even Pete. That would be Peter Papachryssanthou, the owner of the Souvlaki House on Eddy St., Fisk’s favorite haunt during his college years and a mainstay for the Greek system at Cornell. Peter sat in the front row for the ceremony and was asked to stand at one moment during the festivities.

Fisk had one suggestion for anyone willing to listen. “I highly recommend the large greek salad with extra feta.”

Cornell’s Big Red Marching Band helped to end the celebration of the $150 million gift

DON’T MISS: CORNELL’S COLLEGE OF BUSINESS GETS $150 MILLION NAMING GIFT or THE BIRTH OF CORNELL’S COLLEGE OF BUSINESS

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.