How Cornell Got $150 Million From A Billionaire

SC Johnson Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson takes a selfie with students

By the time Fisk Johnson graduated with his PhD in physics from Cornell University in 1986, he had spent ten solid years as a college student. The 29-year-old son of Sam Johnson, then chairman and CEO of the family household products company SC Johnson, had piled up five Cornell degrees on his resume.

There was his bachelor’s in chemistry and physics in 1979; his master’s in engineering in 1980; his master’s in physics in 1982; his MBA in 1984, and finally his PhD two years later.

Initially supportive of his son’s academic wanderlust, Sam Johnson was clearly getting concerned after Fisk earned his MBA and still didn’t return home to Racine, Wis., to work in the family business. “He started telling me it was time I left and became a producer of things instead of a consumer of things,” recalls Fisk Johnson. “After the tenth year rolled around of me being here (at Cornell), I could tell he was really starting to panic. He once told a large public audience that I was living proof someone could go through ten years of fraternity parties and survive.”

‘STICK AROUND AND I’LL GIVE YOU A GOOD DEAL ON A LAW DEGREE’

At a recepton following his PhD graduation, then Cornell President Frank Rhodes came up to Fisk just as his father Sam was coming within ear shot. “Frank said, “If you stick around, I’ll give you a good deal on a law degree,’” recalls Fisk. “I can still see that look of panic on my dad’s face.”

Fisk, who laughs that over his Cornell years he consumed 14 to 15 meals a week at the Souvlaki House in Ithaca, apparently had enough of being a professional student. He joined the family company as a marketing associate, ultimately succeeding his father as chairman in 2000 and then, four years later in 2004, as CEO. This week, four months shy of his 60th birthday, he returned to his alma mater to an extended standing ovation after signing a pledge to give $150 million of his, his family and SC Johnson’s money to the newly named SC Johnson College of Business. It was the largest gift to Cornell’s Ithaca, N.Y., campus ever and the second largest naming gift for a business school.

The new gift, moreover, follows the $20 million naming gift his father had given to Cornell to name the Johnson Graduate School of Management in 1984, the same year Fisk picked up his MBA from the school. That gift, at the time the largest pledge ever to a business school, was made in honor of Fisk’s great grandfather, Samuel Curtis Johnson, the former parquet floor salesman who mixed his first batch of Johnson’s Wax in his bathtub. That was the start of the privately-held SC Johnson company whose brands include Windex, Pledge, Drano, Scrubbing Bubbles, and Shout.

SECOND LARGEST NAMING GIFT TO A BUSINESS SCHOOL EVER

Business school gifts of $150 million are rare. Only two philantropists have given more to a business school: David Booth’s $300 million naming gift to the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business in 1997 and Stephen Ross’ $200 million gifts in 2004 and 2013 to the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Yet, the path that made the Cornell gift possible was as uncommon as its size.

Amidst a great deal of controversy from students, alumni and faculty, the university last year combined three schools—the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, the School of Hotel Administration, and the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management—into the new College of Business. Mashing together the schools immediately gave the new college scale and impact, with 145 research faculty and nearly 2,900 undergraduate, professional, and graduate students.

But some alumni, especially of the hotel school, claimed the merger would undermine their school’s identity. Other naysayers complained that their schools would be harmed by the merger and the need to share resources. Some faculty maintained they were blindsided by the decision. The criticism required administrators to do far more lobbying with students, faculty and alumni than was ever imagined.

A CONTROVERSIAL MERGER OPENED THE DOOR TO THE $150 MILLION GIFT

Unbeknownst at the time, however, was that the merger would create a new opportunity for a naming gift. The most obvious benefactor was Fisk Johnson, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at $3.6 billion and whose family has been deeply connected to the university and school since Fisk’s grandfather, Herbert F. Johnson Jr., met his future wife at the university and graduated from Cornell in 1922. A generation later, Fisk’s parents also met at Cornell as students.

“My grandfather first came to Cornell at a time when the family business made only wax products, furniture and floor polishes,” Fisk told a packed auditorium this week at Cornell. “When he finished high school in 1917, our cmpany first tried to branch out in non-wax products by making anti-freeze for the Ford Model T automobile. The product worked just fine because it was mainly just salt. The only downside was that the salt rusted every radiator it touched. We ended up buying 500 Model T radiators that year. That was actually when my grandfather was hurried off to Cornell to get a chemistry degree and he was our company’s very first chemist.”

So when the university combined the three schools to gain more scale and efficiency, it seemed like an ideal time for a new major gift. “After the merger was announced, it was only natural for us to go to the Johnson family to see if they wanted to invest in this new entity,” says Dean Soumitra Dutta, who joined the school nearly five years ago from INSEAD. “It really started after the merger was announced. As we explained more of the benefits and the family saw the increased prominence that a larger expanded school could bring, they got excited and wanted to participate in the future of the college.”

Soumitra Dutta, dean of Cornell’s new SC Johnson College of Business

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

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.