The origins of the Beckman Institute

An excerpt from An Illini Place: Building the University of Illinois Campus, by Lex Tate and John Franch

The gift (and match) to establish the interdisciplinary Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, astonishing in its own right, was, however, profoundly important to the University of Illinois for another reason: it ignited a surge of campus planning theretofore unseen in more than half a century.

Finding the right location for the new institute, programmed for about 330,000 square feet, provided the perfect opportunity to look closely at the north, or engineering, campus, which would host the new building and several others already in the works.

Within six months, warp speed by academic measure, Sasaki Associates Inc. of Watertown, Massachusetts, had prepared a sixty-six-page North Campus Master Plan, and Ikenberry and Chancellor Thomas E. Everhart (1984-87) had moved the plan to approval by the University Board of Trustees on April 10, 1986. It was, as Urbana planner Alice Novak put it, “a more complex plan for a more complex time.”

tate and franchBeckman had jumped onto Ikenberry’s radar screen early in his presidency with a generous $5 million commitment to the Campus Research Board—and the requirement of a dollar-for-dollar match. “Arnold was not only a wonderful philanthropist, but the toughest businessman,” who brought a “pure business perspective” to his purposeful giving, Ikenberry recalled in a 2008 interview.

In fact, the match of private dollars and state/federal money became emblematic of major gifts then as today. Donors challenged the university to secure government funding and would match at the rate of 1:1, 1:2, or 1:3. The Beckman gift was 4:1, $40 million from the donor and $10 million from the state, a ratio not seen since. (More recently, forty, fifty, or several hundreds of donors will contribute to projects, such as the ACES Library, the Alice Campbell Alumni Center, and the giant energy-efficient ECE Building [Electrical and Computer Engineering] that overflows the last empty space of the Beckman Quad.) For a couple of years, the ECE Web site updated every day its “Buy a Bit” campaign that yielded more than $90 million. Of that, $47.5 million is state funds, the rest in private money ranging from $10 million from the Grainger Foundation to several hundred gifts less than $1,000.

Arnold Beckman regularly visited the campus en route to or from board meetings of SmithKlineBeckman, the corporation formed from the 1982 merger of Beckman Instruments, the source of Beckman’s wealth, and SmithKline, a pharmaceutical company. According to Theodore Brown’s 2009 book Bridging Divides: The Origins of the Beckman Institute at Illinois, the Beckman campus visits included time with interesting and productive faculty members, including Beckman Fellows and others working under Beckman Research Awards. Brown was at that time campus vice chancellor for research and dean of the Graduate College; he became the founding director of the Beckman Institute (1987-93) and spearheaded the proposal that led to the Beckman gift.

The executive director of the University of Illinois Foundation, Lewis Barron, had told Ikenberry that the Beckmans wanted to liquidate their substantial estate and give it away during their lifetime.

Earlier, in 1983, Barron had urged campus officials to employ a strategy common among private universities in approaching major donors for new facilities. He called for “sweeping, imaginative new projects that would move the campus to the forefront in promising research areas, and which were of such a scope and character that the state would almost certainly not provide funding for them,” Brown wrote of Barron’s idea.

Brown took leadership of the elaborate effort, and throughout 1984 a select group of faculty developed the proposal, which first went to the Beckmans that fall. A supplement—making the case that the Urbana-Champaign campus was a proven winner in interdisciplinary research—went in summer 1985.

The “ask” was $50 million, nearly twice as much as Ikenberry had first calculated. “It was hard for me to conceptually put my arms around that,” Ikenberry said in 2008. The “big idea” was born.

Facility Crisis

But the Beckman Institute did not develop in isolation. Independent of the prospect of a huge gift was the stark reality of what Ikenberry termed a facility crisis. While the campus’s student enrollment had not increased dramatically, the size of the campus’s research program in dollars, faculty, and engaged students had expanded materially. “So the research expansion was causing a crisis in precisely the area in which the Urbana campus has a long-standing position of strength: science and technology,” he said.

This concern for facilities was joined with the Beckman opportunity. A less imaginative outcome would have been to build a long-needed chemistry and life sciences facility, which finally was constructed in 1996 in the central campus, but that would be a “non-starter” with Beckman himself, as he had solicited proposals from schools other than Illinois. Those other schools included big-science and engineering competitor Caltech, where Beckman had earned his doctorate and served on the board of trustees for two decades.

Both Arnold and Mabel Beckman read and critiqued the proposals, and as the weeks rolled by, Ikenberry said he despaired that a gift would materialize.

On one visit to California—and one more lunch with the Beckmans at the Pacific Club in Newport Beach—Ikenberry said he wondered to himself when it would all end. “Mabel must have sensed that I was sagging a little bit or getting discouraged . . . I must have had the ‘wrong’ look on my face, but she came up and put her arm around me and said, ‘Stan: Don’t worry. I’ve read all the proposals that have come in and Illinois is best.”

Illinois also was first. Late that summer Ikenberry learned the U of I would receive $40 million contingent on a $10 million state match. Barron whispered the good news in Ikenberry’s ear during a break in a regular board of trustees meeting in the second-floor General Lounge of the Illini Union.

“And I was just weak,” Ikenberry recalled. “The difficult part was I couldn’t tell anybody,” not the Board of Trustees or campus officials until he had lined up the state match, which he did in short order.