CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois' acclaimed engineering school has received a gift that is tied with its largest ever, school leaders announced Monday.
The school at the Urbana-Champaign campus will be renamed the Grainger College of Engineering in honor of a $100 million gift from the Grainger Foundation, based in Lake Forest, matching a similar gift from the same donor six years ago.
The organization's namesake, William W. Grainger, graduated from U. of I. in 1919 with a degree in electrical engineering. The gift comes in the 100th year since Grainger's graduation and brings the total amount of the foundation's support to the engineering school to $300 million since 1979. The foundation also gave $100 million in 2013 to support student scholarships and faculty recruitment.
School leaders said they plan to use the gift to bolster the college's endowment, at now more than $500 million, and provide long-term support for a variety of initiatives.
"They have been such strong supporters of the College of Engineering for so many years," said Dean Rashid Bashir. "We are so excited. It's really going to have a tremendous, very long-lasting impact, a profound impact on our college, on our students, on the quality of our research and everything that we're trying to do."
"All of us here at The Grainger Foundation are delighted that this gift will further strengthen one of the most distinguished engineering schools in the world," David W. Grainger, foundation chairman, said in a statement.
In 1927, William Grainger founded W.W. Grainger, Inc., a supplier of maintenance, repair and operating products. He established his eponymous foundation in 1949.
The nonprofit arm has served as benefactor to a variety of organizations, including the American Red Cross and various educational scholarship programs, according to the website.
The Grainger pledge is one of the largest gifts made to higher education in 2019, according to a database maintained by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and counts among the largest gifts made to the state's flagship institution. Thomas M. Siebel also gave $100 million to the university in 2007.
The university's top gift was $150 million in 2017 from Larry and Beth Gies, who devoted the funds to the business school, now named for them.
Beyond the dollar amount, the new gift is particularly notable because it's unrestricted, meaning college officials have free rein on where to spend the money. Major gifts in college philanthropy usually carry stringent terms for use of the funds.
But there are notable exceptions. In 2008, David Booth gave an unrestricted $300 million to University of Chicago business school, now named for him.
"I'm awestruck. These things don't happen that often," U. of I. Provost Andreas Cangellaris said. "There are so many opportunities and ideas that our faculty is coming up with. You always look for that flexible source of money that will allow you to seeks those initiatives and turn them into big successes, not only for engineering but for the entire campus. I think this gift will be transformational."
Bashir also said the donation will enable faculty and leadership to pursue multiple major initiatives simultaneously. Among the priorities he identified were boosting research, broadening the undergraduate programs and ramping up recruitment of students from underrepresented groups.
"This automatically translates into activities and opportunities people were not able to do before," Cangellaris said.
Eight- and nine-figure gifts are relatively rare, but national studies show they have comprised larger proportions of overall giving to higher education. It once was commonplace for private institutions to command massive donations, but many large public universities also have succeeded in attracting outside philanthropy over the past two decades.
Many of these eye-popping gifts also have come amid increasingly ambitious fundraising campaigns. The University of Illinois is in the middle of a five-year, $3.04 billion campaign for its three campuses. The goal for the engineering school alone is $550 million, school leaders said, and nearly 85 percent of that has been raised with the addition of the Grainger gift.