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Gift to Eckerd will open doors

The board of trustees’ chairman’s $25-million donation will go toward financing a new science complex. But that’s not the only way it will help, school officials say.

Published May 20, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG — The trustees of Eckerd College knew their chairman was about to make a gift to the school.
But when Miles C. Collier announced his plan to donate $25-million, “there were very audible gasps’’ at a meeting of the trustees last week.

The gift from Miles Collier and his wife, Parker, of Naples is the largest in the college’s history and among the largest made to an institution of higher education in the Tampa Bay area.

“I was overwhelmed with gratitude,’’ said the board’s vice chairman, Grover Wrenn. “I obviously knew of Miles’ commitment to the college and of his capability to give, but this is an overwhelming gift.’’

College president Donald R. Eastman III knew the amount of the gift earlier because Collier had mentioned it recently while the two were driving to the airport.

“I was speechless,’’ Eastman said.

Collier did not respond to a request made through the school for an interview. But others were more than happy to talk about how the gift could benefit the liberal arts college.

“He has a great conviction that the college does an absolutely superb job of educating undergraduate students,’’ Eastman said.

The gift will help finance a new science complex, important at a college where about 40 percent of the graduates are science majors. But Eastman stressed that this gift is more than one building. The donation also will be used for other capital projects, as well as matching money for scholarships and endowed chairs in various academic disciplines.

Eastman said the gift could help the college achieve the goal of having many of its students study abroad. More than 80 percent of them study overseas now, but some can’t afford it. Eastman said $1-million of Collier’s gift would go toward a $2-million fund to make sure more students can take advantage of the opportunity. The remaining $1-million still would need to be raised.

Eastman said the gift also would be used to finance endowed chairs. For example, say that someone wants to endow a professorship in environmental sciences and name it in honor of his or her father. Normally, that can cost $1-million. But Collier’s gift would provide matching money, so creating the professorship would cost only $500,000. And Collier’s name would not be associated with the gift.

In general, Collier has placed “an emphasis on matching gifts in our major area of priorities,’’ Wrenn said. In other words, he wants to use this money to help raise even more money for the school.

In fact, the college’s supporters over the next few years hope to raise enough money to match Collier’s entire gift, and probably more money beyond that, for a total that would significantly exceed $50-million. An exact amount of the campaign has not been set, Eastman said.

The gift also would finance or help finance:

  • Strengthening a program in environmental and coastal sciences.
  • Renovating the Bininger Theatre.
  • Two professorships in creative writing and one in film.
  • Renovating the chapel and creating an endowed professorship of religion and history.
  • Several scholarships, both for the 1,750 mostly on-campus and generally younger students, as well as for the roughly 1,000 students in programs for “experienced learners.’’

Collier has been a member of the board of trustees since 1988 and is managing partner of Collier Enterprises in Naples. He is the grandson of Barron Collier, founder of Collier County.

The gift is especially welcome considering the financial turmoil Eckerd suffered in 2000 after discovering an unauthorized transfer of $19.5-million from the school’s endowment. The money had been spent on assorted campus projects, including a dormitory, but without the board’s approval. The episode forced the resignation of the school’s president and chief financial officer at the time.

College leaders since then had worked at rebuilding the endowment to its previous level and then planning. This gift and the others the college hopes to receive in matching contributions will help the school build anew, Eastman said.

“It means that we actually can reach the kinds of lofty goals that we’ve set for ourselves,’’ he said.

Before this, the largest gift to the college came from drugstore entrepreneur Jack Eckerd, back when the school was called Florida Presbyterian College. Eckerd gave $10-million in the 1970s. The college was later renamed.

Other large gifts to local colleges include a $28-million gift to the University of Tampa from John H. and Susan Sykes and $34.5-million to the University of South Florida from Drs. Kiran and Pallavi Patel.

[Last modified May 20, 2006, 21:49:06]

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