Montana State University

Spring 2016

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Mountains and Minds

A building that will tear down walls May 10, 2016 • Published 05/10/16

Engineering students will have more  space to work on real projects in the new Norm Asbjornson Hall.
Engineering students will have more space to work on real projects in the new Norm Asbjornson Hall.

In 2014, MSU alumnus Norm Asbjornson challenged Montana State University’s students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends to think bigger and bolder than they ever had before. The 1960 engineering graduate pledged $50 million to the university—the largest gift in the history of Montana—if MSU would match it with another $20 million by June 30, 2016.

The $70 million total would be used to launch the South Campus, located across from the Strand Union Building, with a new, 115,000-square-foot engineering building as its cornerstone. The new innovation center would be called Norm Asbjornson Hall and would give MSU much-needed space for its students, but also classrooms and labs embracing the best of architectural design to inspire students to work together across disciplines and to be motivated by each other and their faculty members to innovate in ways previously unavailable.

To date, $18 million has been raised. Another $2 million is needed by June 30 to meet Asbjornson’s goal. With its many alumni and friends, MSU hopes to break ground this summer on the visionary project.

“I hope my gift challenges and inspires others who are in a position to advance the university that has given us so much. MSU needs our support now and this is the time to give back,” Asbjornson said when he first made his pledge.

“I think it’s an absolute must for everyone to give back to what made them successful. I had a lot of help from MSU and Winifred. I can’t repay those who helped me, for they’re gone. But I can give to the next generation. I think everyone should balance the books and thank those people and institutions who helped them and also give to the next generation.
“It’s a responsibility we all have.”

Born and raised in Winifred, Montana, Asbjornson started his entrepreneurial career at the age of 10 when his uncle offered him a Model T in return for watering hundreds of chickens. For a summer, he hauled hundreds of gallons of water to the chickens from a well using two small pails. On payday, he learned the Model T had been covered in a flood and the engine was too rusted to start.

Undeterred, he worked on the car in his father’s garage until it ran. Then he became his own boss and went into business hauling garbage for 25 cents a barrel. It felt like a lot of money to Asbjornson, who grew up during the Great Depression, his family starting in an 800-square-foot house with no indoor plumbing, running water, electricity or telephone.

After earning his degree in mechanical engineering at what was then Montana State College, Asbjornson spent 28 years working in the HVAC business until he founded AAON in 1988 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The company manufactures commercial air conditioning equipment weighing from 200 pounds to 20,000 pounds. Its equipment can be found cooling and heating businesses around Bozeman, throughout Montana and the nation. Traded on the NASDAQ, the company has annual revenues in excess of $300 million and more than 1,400 employees.

From humble beginnings in small town Montana to leaving a legacy for generations of students to come, Asbjornson has laid out a bold vision for MSU.

His career taught him that professional success most often requires skills that cross disciplines. Engineers need to know how to communicate with others and read a spreadsheet. Those who major in the humanities may need some of the skills taught in engineering or business, for example, to be successful.

When Asbjornson talked about the kind of future he wanted MSU students to have, it was this issue of working and thinking across disciplines that was most important to him.

Asbjornson asked the university to think out of the box as it explored the value of interdisciplinary curricula and to address the burgeoning growth in enrollment in the College of Engineering. He asked MSU to embrace new ideas and push how classrooms, laboratories and common areas were designed into new territory.

MSU believes it has a plan to make that vision a reality in the designs it has for Norm Asbjornson Hall.

In the words of MSU President Waded Cruzado, the innovation center will “transform the lives of generations of students, it will transform this campus, and it will transform the state of Montana in profound ways.”

MSU invites all alumni and friends to join in this transformative project. ■

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