$194.7M Walton gift to aid UA in creation of research institute

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July 15, 2020 By Jaime Adams

FAYETTEVILLE -- A $194.7 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation will establish a new research institute at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville to bring together faculty members from across disciplines.

The gift announced Tuesday ranks outside the top 50 for a U.S. university but is among the largest ever, said one philanthropy expert. It establishes the UA Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research, or I3R, with goals that include taking more ideas to the marketplace and boosting collaboration between researchers and industry.

The institute will have five focus areas: data science, food systems, materials science, metabolic disease and integrative neuroscience. Having researchers in different fields working together positions UA to stand out nationally, Chancellor Joe Steinmetz said.

"We have a lot of existing strengths in those areas, but what can make us different and unique is the way these areas interact in defining research questions," Steinmetz said. For students, there will be additional research opportunities and more chances to engage with entrepreneurship regardless of major, he said.

The gift will support the hiring of 20 new faculty members and the establishment of a UA site in Bentonville, along with helping pay for construction of a new $100 million research facility. It's expected to be the costliest academic building in UA's history, said university spokeswoman Amy Schlesing.

Steinmetz said the Walton gift will cover $50 million in construction costs for the research building, with the university to seek approval for an approximately $30 million bond issue along with using some $20 million in internal funds "set aside" for such a facility. Steinmetz referred to UA having had recent increases in "net position," a term relating to resources available given assets and liabilities.

The research facility may be on campus -- near UA's nanotechnology building on West Dickson Street -- or at the university's research park in south Fayetteville, Steinmetz said.

The gift is the second-largest in UA's history, behind a $300 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation announced in 2002.

"Most universities will never even imagine a gift this large ever coming their way," said Noah Drezner, a Columbia University professor of higher education.

"In fact, there's only been about 55 gifts from my tally that have been over $200 million dollars" to U.S. universities, Drezner said, calling Tuesday's announcement "truly a major gift."

It's the latest in a line of gifts to UA from the family of Walmart founder Sam Walton, including a $23.7 million gift announced in 2018 that's considered "Phase I" of UA's research and commercialization effort.

The grant announced Tuesday "will support the University of Arkansas as it seeks to drive innovation and transform entrepreneurship and research to commercialization for industries nationwide," Steuart Walton, chairman of the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation Board, said in a statement released by UA.

Steuart Walton is a grandson of Sam Walton and the son of 1971 UA graduate Jim Walton.

The vision for the institute "has been developing for many years," Daphne Moore, a spokeswoman for the foundation, said in a statement when asked about the timing of the gift announcement during a pandemic.

Moore said "it's more important now, than ever, to commit resources to create a stable economy," with "innovation and entrepreneurship" both "key to this effort."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson described the new institute in terms of helping the Arkansas economy.

"The enhancement of the University of Arkansas's focus on research to commercialization and entrepreneurship education will have a lasting impact on the state, its businesses, and economy," Hutchinson said in a statement. "The funding is a clear position of confidence in the University of Arkansas and will strengthen their position as a leading public research university."

Laura MacDonald, principal and founder of the Ohio-based Benefactor Group consultancy, said a large gift could have a ripple effect encouraging other donors, even with the pandemic causing uncertainty.

"I think both that follow-the-leader effect and that social norming effect are strengthened when you see an influential donor make a decision like this," said MacDonald, chair of the board of directors for the nonprofit Giving USA Foundation.

Steinmetz said the Walton grant is to be paid over five years and will, over the long term, strengthen the economy in part by attracting talented researchers to Arkansas.

For UA, "we really want to solidify our position as a leader in technology transfer and entrepreneurial education," Steinmetz said.

The largest portion of the gift, $89 million, is going toward the I3R facility, UA announced. Steinmetz said that along with $50 million for construction, about $30 million will pay for research equipment. Other grant money will help faculty members in relocating their research to the new site, he said.

"We hope to have the construction completed in late 2023 or early 2024," Steinmetz said. No target date has been set for construction to begin, he said.

Another portion of the gift, $88 million, will fund new endowed chairs and faculty positions and will also be used for the institute's operating expenses, according to UA. This includes support for recruiting an institute director. Steinmetz said a nationwide search will be conducted.

New faculty members hired on will have half of their salaries coming from the institute and the remainder from UA colleges and departments, Steinmetz said. He said it's likely that new hires won't be added to the faculty for another two to three years.

"It takes typically a whole academic year to hire somebody and move them from an institution," Steinmetz said.

The gift provides $14 million for a Bentonville campus, including "the costs to lease a facility," according to UA's announcement. "A planning process will commence this summer to plan for populating the space comprehensively with outreach, research and relevant lab space, as well as educational space," with a new campus needing "approval by the University of Arkansas System Board of Trustees and appropriate accrediting agencies."

Bentonville is home to Walmart Inc. Other past gifts from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation to UA include $300 million to endow the university's Honors College and support graduate education, as well as a $120 million gift announced in 2017 to support arts education and UA's School of Art.

The university released a 50-page gift agreement with the Walmart Family Charitable Support Foundation, which is a separate entity from the Walmart Family Foundation.

[DOCUMENT: Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation gift agreement »]

The agreement describes the largest portion of the gift -- $139.7 million -- as going toward "costs as these are incurred for the establishment of the I3R and the support of its research and programs, the construction of an approximately 75,000-100,000 square foot research facility and the establishment of a U of A Bentonville campus."

The remainder, $55 million, is to be set up as an endowment supporting the institute's director, five "Centers of Excellence" directors and fifteen faculty members, the gift agreement states.

The new institute will focus on the five "clusters of innovation," described by UA in full as: data science; food + technology (food systems and the future of food); materials science and engineering; bioscience and bioengineering research in metabolism; and integrative systems neuroscience.

Steinmetz, UA's top administrator since January 2016, is a behavioral neuroscientist.


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