Chemical Engineering: A Focus on Faculty

Alumni embrace opportunities to endow funds for early-career faculty.

For years, Tom Murphy (BSChE '70) wrote what he describes as small checks to Purdue because it seemed like the right thing to do.

"I had a good career, but it didn't make me a billionaire. Still, I felt like I wasn't giving enough," Murphy, a retired Abbott Laboratories executive, says. "You read about people contributing $1 million to endow a scholarship or name a building, but what is there between $100 and $1 million?"

Craig Smith (BSChE '72) found himself in a somewhat similar position. A financial advisor and senior vice president for investments for Morgan Stanley, he had been a longtime financial supporter of Purdue athletics, but felt like the time was right to do something more.

Tom Murphy

"I had a chance to meet with President Daniels and learned that he was committed to growing Purdue's market share in engineering," Smith says. "If there was a way to help make the University bigger, better and more attractive - to help Purdue students be more marketable overall - I was all for it."

That's when Arvind Varma, the R. Games Slayter Distinguished Professor and the Jay and Cynthia Ihlenfeld Head of Chemical Engineering, presented Smith and Murphy with the concept of establishing faculty development funds that would help attract and retain early-career faculty members in the School of Chemical Engineering.

Unlike distinguished professorships, named professorships and "rising star" faculty endowments, the faculty development funds Varma proposed were much more affordable, and did not require monetary gifts of $500,000 to $2.5 million.

"Many more people can afford to give at the $25,000 or $50,000 level," Varma says. "These funds offer a way for donors to contribute to our mission by supporting faculty hiring and retention."

That is critical at a time when the College's Strategic Growth Initiative calls for hiring more than 100 faculty members by 2016, a 30 percent increase. Eight to 10 of those new positions are slated for the School of Chemical Engineering.

Kick-starting Research and Teaching Programs

The Thomas F. Murphy Faculty Development Fund and the Craig A. Smith Family Faculty Development Fund were established as endowments, which means they each generate 5 percent annually that is directed to the specified purpose - faculty support - within the School of Chemical Engineering. According to Varma, that money helps early-career faculty members with such things as purchasing supplies for their research labs, traveling to conferences and hiring graduate students to assist with course materials.

"These funds help us attract outstanding new faculty members, because we can promise them the startup money they need to get their research and teaching programs off the ground," Varma says. "For us, superb faculty is the key. Without them, we are nothing."

Murphy agrees: "You can have great facilities, but if you don't have great teachers and researchers, they are hollow shells.

Craig Smith

"Purdue faculty were my first exposure to professional, adult chemical engineers. As a student, I had a lot of curiosity about how they attacked problems and communicated with others. I can remember at least half a dozen professors whose classes were memorable, who challenged me and made me feel I was in the right line of study."

Smith, whose chemical engineering degree took him from research and development work at ExxonMobil to a 26-years-and-counting career in the investment business, credits his professors at Purdue with giving him the skills required to make a somewhat unusual career transition.

"A lot of people ask, 'How do you make the leap from chemical engineer to investment advisor?' I always say, 'If you can pass organic chemistry, you can figure out a lot of things in the real world,'" Smith says. "I count my blessings that I was able to go to Purdue. It has opened a lot of doors for me, and what I learned there has served me well in my career."

Both men hope their faculty development funds help today's up-and-coming faculty members inspire a new generation of Purdue Chemical Engineering students.

"Bright, young faculty members aren't so far removed from being students themselves," Murphy says. "They remember what it takes to teach and motivate in the classroom."

To support faculty retention or other initiatives in Chemical Engineering, contact David Williams, senior director of development, at 765-494-4065 or DMWilliams@prf.org.