ConocoPhillips gives $15 million for UAA sciences

UAA’s science and engineering programs got a boost April 30th when ConocoPhillips finalized a $15 million donation designed to aid the new Integrated Science Building.

Of that amount, $4 million will go toward furnishing and equipping the new building – now called the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building – and $11 million will make up the principal for an endowment designed to fund research and scholarship in arctic science and engineering at UAA.

It’s not the first time a company in the oil industry has given money to the University of Alaska; drilling corporations working on Alaska land are required by an agreement signed in 1999 to give a percentage of their yearly proceeds from oil to the UA Foundation. But the donation is the largest single corporate gift given to the University of Alaska in the entire statewide system and one of the single largest donations made in the state of Alaska to date.

“This gift is precedent-setting – precedent-setting for UAA, and precedent-setting for the state,” said Megan Olson, vice chancellor of University Advancement. “We certainly hope that other organizations view this gift as setting a new bar for giving in this state.”

The donation might have come as a surprise to students looking forward to the ISB’s opening in fall 2009, but for the administration, it was different.

“(It was) really quite a lengthy process,” Olson said. “At any time we have a number of different conversations underway with a number of different individuals and corporations. The ConocoPhillips conversation began about 14 months ago.”

ConocoPhillips’ decision to make this specific a donation was a natural one, though.

- Advertisement -

“We wanted to create an opportunity for the UAA campus, because we have a lot of employees in Anchorage,” said Natalie Lowman, director of communications for ConocoPhillips Alaska. “Many of us are UAA graduates, and we have employees who have kids who are attending UAA. We felt this emphasis on the University of Alaska in Anchorage with the science program was a really good investment, for us and for the community.”

Although the company is required to donate part of its oil revenue to the UA Foundation, this donation to UAA exceeds the agreed-upon amount; Olson said that the $4 million for the ISB went “above and beyond” the compact agreement.

“We were just proud to be able to do this, from a company standpoint, because we’ve always been committed to investing in education in Alaska,” Lowman said, referring to scholarships, career mentorships in rural areas and past donations to the UA system.

Chris Turletes, associate vice chancellor for Facilities and Campus Services, said the UAA administration already has plans for much of the $4 million slated for the ISB. The building’s planetarium was unfinished under the original scope of the project, and $1 million from the donation will purchase the projector for the planetarium.

“There’s still furnishings and equipment associated with the building that we will use the balance of the $3 million for,” Turletes said. “A lot of the equipment is scientific equipment – their list is long, so they really have to prioritize the list, and that’s an ongoing project.” He said a science advisory group will work with his office to find the junction between the science departments’ priorities and the amounts UAA can afford to spend.

Douglas Causey, UAA biology professor and vice provost for Research and Graduate Studies, said his office will help oversee the allocation of the $11 million endowment, which will stay in an interest-bearing account held by the UA Foundation but not controlled by the Statewide administration. As with many other UA endowments, the principal from the donation won’t be touched, but the money is expected to generate about $500,000 in interest annually.

Causey said the benefit of an endowment is that it generates funds without depending on state funding or the ever-changing University budget.

“It would be like having a rich relative die and leave you with a whole bunch of money that would allow you to have a half-million dollars a year forever,” Causey said.

When the endowment begins paying out in 2016, Causey said, it will be used through a competitive process to support scientific research by faculty, undergraduates and graduate students; pilot projects; and the acquisition of specialized scientific equipment.

Eventually, the endowment might produce greater changes for UAA.

“This endowment is not to set up graduate programs, it’s to support research,” Causey said. “But you can’t have a Ph.D. program unless you do research to support the students who would be part of that program. It helps to support the arguments we’re making that there ought to be Ph.D. programs in science and engineering.”

Despite conflicts within the UA system that have made these arguments necessary, Causey said the research opportunities in the state could more than satisfy all the universities in question.

“Right now UAF does about, depending on how you measure it, four to five times more research than UAA,” he said. “In total, the total amount of research UAA and UAF does, isn’t even a small percentage of the amount of work that has to be done up here, so it’s not like we’re fighting over a pie. Both institutions can continue to grow.”

That growth can be seen at UAA with this donation, a gift that Olson said would be mutually beneficial for the university and for ConocoPhillips.

“What this gift gives ConocoPhillips is the prestige of association with the university,” she said. “They have their name on one of our buildings for 25 years. I guess more important is what we get out of the gift. This gift will pay out forever for the benefit of our students in arctic science and engineering areas. In terms of an ongoing partnership, this commitment now speaks to Conoco’s commitment to benefiting UAA’s students for generations to come.”