The Story Behind the Name: Olin Hall
This article was originally published in the Winter 2017 Centrepiece.
An Olin grant is the “Pulitzer Prize” of higher education, said Richard L. Morrill, then Centre president, at a 1986 press conference announcing Centre’s Franklin W. Olin Foundation award for a new physical sciences building.
The grant would eventually total $3.5 million ($7.7 million today) and, like all Olin grants, paid for everything: architectural plans, construction, desks, chairs, and all the lab equipment. It even included a Foucault pendulum that demonstrates the rotation of the earth. It was the first grant the foundation had ever made to a Kentucky school, and it was the only one awarded that year, from a field of 78 applicants.
The foundation was started in 1938 by F.W. Olin, an engineer who made a fortune producing chemicals and munitions. For 67 years, until 2005 when it intentionally spent the last of its endowment, the foundation gave one or two building grants a year, mostly for science buildings and libraries, to private colleges and universities.
Even successful Olin applications usually took several years and many visits to the foundation’s office in New York City. But during Morrill’s first meeting, the president, Lawrence Milas, “showed an immediate interest in the College and the project,” Morrill recently recalled. “I told him about Centre’s distinguished leadership in its region and emphasized that Centre had recently become the national leader in alumni giving at close to a 70 percent participation rate.
“It seemed obvious to me that that figure really got his attention, and his questioning became more intense. He asked right afterward, ‘Why haven’t you been in here before?’”
Morrill and Rick Nahm ’69, Centre’s then-vice president for development, immediately developed a building proposal, fully expecting that at best it would take several years to come to fruition—if it ever would. Instead, Centre made the short list of five. When foundation trustees made their site visit, in April 1986, they asked why Centre needed an Olin grant at all, since the College seemed to be doing so well. Morrill replied, “very pointedly,” he notes, that a “grant to Centre would signal recognition of achievement and alumni loyalty, so it would send a strong message about quality and commitment.”
Several months later the foundation announced that Centre had received its Olin grant. In a letter to Morrill, the foundation president wrote, “We believe you have amply demonstrated not only the importance of this facility to the college, but also the importance of Centre to higher education. Centre is clearly an academic leader in its region, and its planning for the future is superb.”
At the dedication of Centre’s Franklin W. Olin Hall in 1988, Milas shared some history that an unrelated survey of foundation records had revealed. Back in the 1950s, the foundation made several small gifts to help Centre cover some operating deficits. Finally, however, it had had enough. Perhaps, it suggested, the College instead could increase its alumni support.
Clearly Centre listened. By the time of the 1986 grant, Centre was the nation’s leader in percentage of alumni giving, with 75.1 percent of alumni making gifts to their alma mater that year.
by Diane Johnson