Retired faculty giving on the rise at MSU

Always underfoot, but not always understood, soil has been the substance and the passion of Jerry Nielsen’s 50-year career, most recently as a professor in Montana State University's College of Agriculture.

“Soil tells us stories; layers represent the past, and you can read that. It’s important to understand our soil for its own sake, and trust that if we understand it, that will help us,” said Nielsen, who made a career studying soils in their natural environment.

Jerry and LaVonne NielsenNielsen and his wife of 60 years, LaVonne, wanted to leave a legacy in the College of Agriculture that would continue to support basic soils research at the university. Accordingly, in

June, they established the Nielsen Graduate Research Assistantship in the MSU Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences. The assistantship supports graduate students working with faculty to research soils in Montana. The Nielsens are now funding the assistantship through annual gifts, and they have also made a provision in their estate plans that will support the endowment in the future.

Nielsen is just one of hundreds of retired faculty members who have given funds to What It Takes, the campaign for Montana State University.

Since July 1, 2010, 235 retired faculty members have given $4.1 million toward the campaign. Nearly a third of this giving has come in over the past year alone; from July 2014 through this September, retired faculty have given $1.3 million. Gifts from retired faculty in the past year ranged from $10 to major gifts of more than $200,000. The gifts will support undergraduate scholarships at MSU and Great Falls College MSU, graduate fellowships and research, student services, academic programs, faculty chairs and community extension programs. 

Gifts from retired faculty have made a major impact on the growth and sustainability of Montana State University, according to Chris Murray, president and CEO of the MSU Alumni Foundation.

“Gifts from retired faculty are incredibly meaningful. These faculty members have left a long lasting legacy at MSU through their teaching and research, and their gifts are another powerful indication of the trust and passion they have in and for our university and future generations of Bobcats,” said Murray.

Another recent gift to MSU came from MSU physics professor John Hermanson and his wife, Pat, who worked in the chemistry department for 10 years. The couple established an estate gift to support the university’s endowment for undergraduate physics scholarships.

Hermanson, who served as head of the MSU physics department for 13 years, said that in addition to providing financial assistance, scholarships are important because they show students that they are supported and that others believe in them.

“As a professor I saw the difference scholarships made for students…. And the undergraduate experience is where students really blossom. I saw how eager students were to learn. They had very high goals, and they wanted to succeed.”

Among faculty who have supported MSU in the past year, seven have also established planned gifts through their estate. 

Jerry CoffeyFor Jerry Coffey, MSU emeritus linguistics professor, a planned gift was a way to plant seeds for future discoveries. Through his gift, Coffey will establish two endowments in the College of Letters & Science. One will fund a college-wide undergraduate scholarship, and the second will be used to advance collaboration between the sciences and the humanities.

“All students need a background in science to understand the tools they are working with. They should be able to think scientifically,” Coffey said. 

Coffey added that the gift is an opportunity for him to establish a legacy.

“You spend your whole career with the institution and you develop a vision for where it should go, and you still want to be able to have an impact on the future,” Coffey said.