Photographer: Julia Moss
Oct 19, 2012
By Monica Chapman
Louis Wright was a newly tenured faculty member when 1970s budget cuts threatened to eliminate his position with the Department of Physics and Astronomy. In response, senior faculty in the department offered to give up 10 percent of their salaries to keep the team intact.
In the end, it wasn't his colleagues that salvaged Wright's role. But their sense of allegiance carries on, inspiring interdepartmental giving in various forms. Wright channels that spirit through the Department of Physics and Astronomy Fund, an endowment that he set up in 2000 to provide a source of discretionary funds for department initiatives.
Adding to a significant start-up contribution by Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy Roger Rollins, Wright contributed more than $21,000 over 10 years to support the endowment. And today, as fully retired professor emeriti of physics, that generosity continues.
Wright is joined by eight current faculty -- half of the Department of Physics and Astronomy -- who have each donated more than $1,000 through payroll deduction during the years. Thanks to these gifts, and the gifts of other faculty and alumni and friends, the endowment is now valued at more than $65,000.
Each December, 4 percent of the total endowment value is moved into a spending account, where it funds department receptions, holiday parties, professional development and student scholarships, among other needs.
"From an operational point of view, and for using it to build department cohesion and (address) day-to-day somewhat small financial problems, it's kind of invaluable," Wright said.
Light years of difference
Among other initiatives, last year's endowment funded $500 in cash prizes to seven students competing in the State Science Fair. This marks the first year that prize money was granted through the Physics and Astronomy Fund, but the department has been sponsoring State Science Fair Awards since 2003, according to Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Mark Lucas.
"(The awards intend) to encourage students in their study of science," Lucas explained.
As a recipient of OHIO's high school award three years in a row, OHIO senior Keith Hawkins is quick to point out its value. The award fueled Hawkins' continued research in black holes, which earned national and international recognition during his junior and senior years of high school. The State Science Fair awards also paved the way for Hawkins to attend Ohio University, where he now studies astrophysics in the Honors Tutorial College.
"I've had the opportunity to really get involved in research thanks to Ohio University, and I feel like that's given me an edge going into graduate school," said Hawkins, who was among nearly 30 OHIO faculty, staff and student volunteers at last year's State Science Day.
By design, the Physics and Astronomy Fund is not limited to student scholarship -- or any other category, for that matter. Wright's only stipulation is that the money be spent at the department chair's discretion -- no strings attached.
"One of the things I realized is that there were many cases where you needed money for various things that did not fit into a standard allotment of budget when it came to the University," he said. "My attitude is the department chair . . . should have decision-making power on how to spend a certain amount of money."
And because the Physics and Astronomy Department was already accustomed to giving money in small amounts -- sponsoring colloquium series, taking out speakers to dinner, etc. -- the endowment was a logical extension, Wright said.
"The department has a history of being very cohesive. We get along well with each other and I can trust the decision making of the department as a whole. And so we view (the endowment) -- especially the entertainment aspect -- as a way of maintaining department cohesion. This just develops a good sense of morale," he explained.
Among the morale-building activities supported through the Physics and Astronomy Endowment are the department's welcome and end-of-year ceremonies, which include buffets in the Clippinger Laboratories' lobby. The monies also provide a means to pay for one-off projects, such as a recent portrait recognizing OHIO's Nobel Prize recipient, Venki Ramakrishnan.
And the cohesion that the fund encourages seems to be reflected by the department's emergent reputation. The Physics and Astronomy's doctoral program recently ranked highest among all physics programs within the state of Ohio, according to the National Research Council Doctoral Program Rankings, released in 2010.
According to Wright, it all comes down to this: "You work hard and you support one another."
Ohio University's current capital campaign, The Promise Lives Campaign, has raised $406 million toward its goal of $450 million by June, 2015 in support of students, faculty, programs, facilities and community partnerships.
To contribute to the Department of Physics and Astronomy Fund, click here. For information on setting up a departmental endowment, click here.