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UA Optical Sciences gets $20M 'transformative' donation to hire at least 10 new professors

The University of Arizona's College of Optical Sciences will receive $20 million as part of an endowment from the college's founding dean to hire and support 10 new faculty chair positions, the largest grant of its kind in UA history. 

The gift, given to the college by Professor Emeritus James C. Wyant and his family, was announced on Friday afternoon at the college's Meinel Optical Sciences Building on the UA campus. 

"This is an incredible, enabling moment for the College of Optical Sciences, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to advance the rapidly expanding ways that optics and photonics can improve our lives," said Thomas L. Koch, the college's current dean. 

A closely held secret, the gift came just weeks after the Arizona Board of Regents approved the construction of two new buildings at the UA in early November, including the Grand Challenges Research Building, a $150 million complex that will be built next to the optical sciences building on Cherry Ave. 

The 10-story, 170,000-square-foot building is part of a larger strategic plan, being implemented by UA President Robert C. Robbins. 

Robbins said that the Wyant's family gift, which will come over the next five years, gives the UA the resources needed to become a leader in what he called the "Fourth Industrial Revolution," and will be a cornerstone of the university's larger strategy. 

"Jim Wyant's leadership, vision and support for students has already had an incredible impact on the UA College of Optical Sciences, and his legacy is one of the main reasons why the UA is a global leader in optics and photonics," said Robbins.

This is the second large gift that Wyant has donated to the college. 

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In 2013, Wyant gave $10 million to the college for graduate student scholarships in a campaign called FoTO, or Friends of Tucson Optics. This grant, backed by more than 250 additional donors, created 30 first-year graduate scholarships. 

John-Paul Roczniak, the University of Arizona Foundation's president, called Wyant's leadership "transformative." 

"No gift in our history as a university has created this many endowed chairs at once. This is an incredible opportunity to grow the college's impact in the field of optics, and I can't wait to watch it unfold," Roczniak said. 

The UA college has been around since 1964, but in recent years, it has grown to one of the largest and "most diverse academic optics education and research programs in the nation," wrote Kaye Rowan, senior development director at the college. 

Wyant joined the college in 1974, and in 1999 was named the director of the Optical Sciences Center, the precursor to the college before it transitioned from center to its own college in 2005. 

Wyant retired in 2013, but maintains his involvement as a professor emeritus, said Rowan. 

"This new gift will support faculty and enhance our students' experience by enabling an environment that fosters leadership, learning, collaboration and connections, and it will help shape the success of UA students far into the future," Robbins said. 

During a short ceremony, Koch lifted a box to unveil 10 small wooden chairs that each represented the new faculty chair positions. 

"I'm personally, incredibly excited about what's before us, I have this vision of explorers," said Koch. "We've got a mandate now to go out there. The applications, the number of things we can do in optics and photonics, is just exploding." 

"We see it everywhere around here, in medicine and technology, and information management," Koch said. The gift was critical for the college to grow, he said. 

In front of 10 small wooden chairs fit for a dollhouse, Wyant said that he was grateful to the university for giving him the opportunity to start a new company while allowing him to maintain his tenure position and continue to teach. 

"We need more faculty; the faculty we have is superb, and I have no doubt about that, but if we want to remain the top optics program in the world, we have to have more faculty, and more students" said Wyant. "So that's why I decided to wanted to donate the money." 

"More faculty, means you need more space," Wyant added. 

"I think it's clear, that all the money I donated, came from companies that I was involved in starting up. The money didn't come from real estate, it didn't come from the stock market, it came from optics companies in Tucson. And, I really think there's a fantastic opportunity for many more optics companies in Tucson." 

"I hope this $20 million, not only makes the college better, but makes the whole community of optical sciences companies in Tucson better," Wyant said. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Koch and UA President Robert C. Robbins stand in front of 10 little wooden chairs representing the 10 new faculty 'chair' positions that will be funded by a $20 million grant.