A record-breaking gift to the University of Maryland: $219 million

A charitable foundation established by a construction magnate is giving the University of Maryland its largest private donation by far, more than $200 million to expand scholarships, endow new faculty positions and make other investments in buildings and programs at the state flagship in College Park.

The $219 million gift from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation, announced Wednesday, shatters the previous record for a single donation to U-Md. — $31 million — set three years ago. It is also among the most significant gifts to any public university in the country, coming at a time when many schools have ramped up fund-raising to offset declines in state support.

Euphoric U-Md. officials said the gift will enhance the 39,000-student university’s strength in engineering and fields such as neuroscience and cybersecurity. They also call it a pivotal development for financial aid because a portion of the gift will be set aside to match other donations to a need-based scholarship fund that aims to help hundreds of students annually from all majors.

“It will transform access and affordability at the University of Maryland,” said U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh.

A. James Clark, who died in March 2015, graduated from U-Md. in 1950 with a civil engineering degree and became a major figure in construction and development in the Washington region and around the country. Among his projects, according to the university, were Nationals Park, the World Bank headquarters, numerous Metro stations and the National Museum of the American Indian.

The highly regarded engineering school at College Park was named for Clark in 1994 after he gave $15 million to support undergraduate education. Loh estimated that Clark gave U-Md. $50 million to $60 million during his lifetime.

Loh and Clark’s daughter, Courtney Clark Pastrick, said the billionaire builder never forgot his modest origins. The son of an insurance salesman, Clark went to U-Md. on a scholarship after World War II and lived off campus to save money. As the family story goes, the young engineering student frequently hitchhiked to get to school via East-West Highway from his home in Bethesda. Financial aid was essential.

“It truly changed the trajectory of his life,” Pastrick said. “He talked about that often.”

Pastrick, 62, of Chevy Chase, Md., who chairs the board of the family foundation, said she was planning to be at College Park Wednesday for the announcement with her 90-year-old mother, Alice B. Clark, who lives in Bethesda.

The foundation has also given tens of millions of dollars to endow engineering scholarships at Virginia Tech and George Washington, Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt universities, with more in the works at the universities of Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The U-Md. gift has been under discussion for about two years. Pastrick said the foundation plans to disburse it over the next decade. “This is our largest investment to date,” she said. “We love the state. We love the school. For my family and my mom, it’s a really exciting time.”

With its gift, U-Md. plans three financial aid initiatives. The “Clark Challenge for Maryland Promise” will help the university raise money through matching funds to support need-based scholarships for a wide spectrum of students. The second will provide scholarships to 40 engineering undergraduates a year, with priority for in-state students. And the third will target help to 40 engineering majors a year who transfer from Maryland community colleges.

For faculty, the gift will endow eight “distinguished chairs” in engineering and five “leadership chairs” in interdisciplinary fields.

The gift will also support construction of a new engineering building and expansion of another, as well as funding for engineering research and doctoral fellowships. “It will simply elevate the reputation and the impact of the university in terms of research and innovation on the great and important issues of the day,” Loh said.

In September 2014, U-Md. announced a $31 million gift from Brendan Iribe, a high-tech entrepreneur who briefly attended College Park. The money supported scholarships and a new computer science building. That gift held U-Md.’s record until Wednesday.

It is tricky to compare philanthropic gifts across historical eras because of inflation. A list of major gifts kept by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows a $600 million donation to the private California Institute of Technology announced in 2001. Within the past year, $500 million gifts have been announced at both the public University of Oregon and the University of California at San Francisco.

The new U-Md. gift illuminates how College Park’s fund-raising has intensified in recent years. Loh said it reflects fiscal reality for public flagships across the country, with state appropriations declining as a share of total revenue. To help contain tuition increases, he said, public university leaders must emulate their private counterparts and cultivate philanthropic support. Loh, in office at U-Md. since 2010, said he and his deans spend a “significantly higher” portion of time raising money than they did in the past.

“That’s the overall pattern,” Loh said. “It’s a pretty accurate description of what’s happening nationwide.”

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