It starts at the Top - Ihlenfeld gift to fund Chemical Engineering headship

Arvind Varma
A reputation for excellence drew Jay Ihlenfeld (BSChE ’74) to Purdue’s Chemical Engineering program in 1970. Now he and his wife, Cynthia, hope to fuel that reputation into the future with a gift of $1.5 million, establishing an endowment to name the headship of the School of Chemical Engineering.

It will be done through a matching-gift program that called for the College of Engineering to match contributions of $1.5 million (over three years) to name headships, with the additional $500,000 required to achieve the necessary $2 million for an endowed headship.

Arvind Varma, the current head, now holds the title of Jay and Cynthia Ihlenfeld Head of Chemical Engineering. “I have seen the importance of a strong school head in setting the direction and in building the quality and reputation of the school,” Jay Ihlenfeld says. “This was something we could do that would have a lasting and meaningful benefit: ensuring the ability to attract and retain top talent in the head position.”

The Ihlenfelds remain very active. Cynthia retired in 2003 after working in a variety of managerial roles for 3M. She also held executive positions with Ecolab and Jefferson Wells. Jay recently joined the board of directors for a global technology company, Ihlenfeld understands the importance of leadership. He recently retired from his position as senior vice president, Asia Pacific, for 3M Corp., where he spent 33 years in leadership and technology positions. He maintained strong ties to Purdue throughout his career. That includes serving as the Purdue representative at 3M, recruiting Purdue alumni to 3M over parts of three decades and serving on the Purdue Chemical Engineering Industrial Advisory Council. He also received the Outstanding Chemical Engineer Award and the Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award from Purdue in 2001.

“I was quite honored to receive those awards,” he says. “That meant a lot to me and kept me deeply interested.” 

Personal interest and involvement are two criteria the Ihlenfelds consider when choosing their charitable beneficiaries. They are profoundly philanthropic, giving at exceptional levels — of both time and money — to their alma maters. (Jay earned a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin, where Cynthia earned her business degree; she also holds an MBA from the University of Minnesota.) They also support and serve on the boards of the Minnesota Orchestra and the Weisman Art Museum.

The Ihlenfelds remain very active. Cynthia retired in 2003 after working in a variety of managerial roles for 3M. She also held executive positions with Ecolab and Jefferson Wells. Jay recently joined the board of directors for a global technology company, Celanese Corp., and will continue advisory work for universities and arts organizations. Cynthia is active with her alma maters, is an artist and volunteers for arts organizations.

The couple enjoys traveling, having lived and worked all over the world.

“I had to learn how to be an effective leader in many, many countries,” Ihlenfeld says. “Looking back, I enjoyed living and working most in Asia due to the uniqueness of the various cultures, the economic energy and the hardworking yet creative nature of the people. Everyone is positive about work and life and is driven to learn and succeed.”

Purdue engineering students have long had a similar drive to learn and succeed, as exemplified by Ihlenfeld’s distinguished career. It’s a trait the Ihlenfelds hope will be cultivated by the leaders of the School of Chemical Engineering for years to come.