Chapman University will get an engineering school, thanks to historic gift by dedicated alumnus

For more than a decade, Chapman University’s leaders have wanted to further expand the campus beyond its liberal arts origins by opening an engineering school.

Now, with a $100-million commitment from a local alumnus, the new school could be accepting students as early as 2020.

Dale E. Fowler, who graduated in 1958, and wife Sarah Ann donated $55 million in 2013 to endow the university’s law school. An additional $45 million for engineering was announced this month.

The Fowlers’ gifts are the largest Chapman has ever received from an individual family, university officials said.

“This has been a dream for a long time,” said Daniele Struppa, president of the 8,000-student university in Orange. “In California, even though we have several engineering schools, the number of students applying is much larger than the capacity.”

Chapman has long wanted to boost its national profile, and expanding the sciences is key, said Struppa, a mathematician. 

Over the past decade, in his previous job as the university’s chief academic officer, he helped established the Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences, the Schmid College of Science and Technology and, on a separate campus in Irvine, the School of Pharmacy.

Struppa is also credited with recruiting faculty such as Vernon L. Smith, a Nobel laureate in economics, and Yakir Aharonov, a National Medal of Science winner in physics. 

“We’ve gone from a small liberal arts college to a well-recognized regional school,” James Doti said in September when he passed the presidency on to Struppa. “He can bring us to the next rung where we’ll be considered a significant national university along the same lines of a Tufts, a Tulane or a Vanderbilt.”

Last spring, the school opened the Marybelle and Sebastian P. Musco Center for the Arts with a celebration starring Plácido Domingo. In December, a $15-million donation established the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy.

Now a $130-million science building, soon to be Chapman’s largest structure, is going up on the northeast side of the main campus.

About a third of it will house the engineering school. 

The school’s first three majors will be software, computer and electrical engineering — fields in which Chapman already has some foundation, Struppa said. Future expansion could include majors such as mechanical, civil and biomedical engineering.

“The Fowlers are good people who really believe in the work the university can do for the community,” Struppa said.

Fowler, who was born in Orange and is the son of a construction contractor, worked as a part-time car salesman while attending Chapman. The economics major, who was interested in real estate, also invested what he could save in a small property in Huntington Beach and got a loan to build apartments on it, according to the university.

He went on to create Fowler Properties, an Anaheim real estate investment and management firm. Two of his children attended Chapman. The third serves on its board of governors. His granddaughter Sarah Robblee now teaches there.

In addition to the $100 million, the Fowlers have donated $1 million for the science building and started a Steinway grand piano collection in the new music center. They have also donated to various scholarships, athletics and other programs.

“I really feel like Chapman is part of our family,” Dale Fowler said.

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