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Endowment shows power of the multiplier effect

Tom Owens is professor emeritus of chemical engineering at UND. The University’s Thomas C. Owens Chair of Chemical Engineering Endowment was set up in his honor. Photo courtesy of UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

For universities, the benefits of endowed faculty are clear: The endowments attract and retain leading scholars and are investments that last far into the future while protecting the university’s operating budget. But what about the benefits to the donors themselves? For many donors, the reward is heartfelt, deep and personal. They are able to thank the University and the outstanding professors who made such a difference in their lives while helping generations of new students experience that same rich education.

For donors to endowed faculty, the reward is heartfelt, deep and personal

Tom Owens, ’68, was not yet 30 when he faced a career choice: academia or Exxon. A UND assistant professor of chemical engineering at the time, Owens packed up his home and young family to head to Houston for a yearlong consulting residency with the oil and gas giant in 1973.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do for sure when I grew up,” Owens said with a laugh. “But I wasn’t there very long before I realized that wasn’t the place for me. I had the opportunity to stay, but there was absolutely no question what I needed to do.

“I realized my place was back with my students in the classroom. I knew UND was the right place for me, so it was no contest to come back.”

UND can be glad he did. So can the 800-some chemical engineering students whom Owens would come to challenge, mentor and inspire over his 33 years at the University.

Owens proved to be such an exceptional teacher that his students eventually did their own extraordinary thing: They banded together to endow a professorship in his name.

“He was one of the best professors I had,” said retired chemical engineer Kristi Brindle, a 1978 UND grad who helped spearhead the endowment. “He had such an easy way of communicating. There was room for humor, and you always could tell he enjoyed being around his students and his faculty.”

He also had a knack for getting to know his students, giving them confidence and opening their eyes to new possibilities. For example, Brindle said it was Owens who suggested she major in chemical engineering. The first-generation college student took that advice and went on to have a long and successful career with Texaco in Colorado.

Today, Brindle and a donor list that includes hundreds of former students have paid tribute to their mentor by establishing and providing ongoing support to the Thomas C. Owens Chair of Chemical Engineering Endowment. They hope their gifts will continue to help UND recruit and retain the “best of the best” faculty and the most capable students.

Owens still gets email and holiday greetings from his former students some 30, 40 and 50 years later. Retired since 2001, he’s now professor emeritus, a status earned after a career in which he chaired the Department of Chemical Engineering for 23 years and served three times as interim dean of the UND College of Engineering & Mines.

Looking back on that fateful decision to return to Grand Forks and to teaching 48 years ago, Owens is both humbled by and immensely grateful to his former students for endowing the professorship and chair in his name. “Really, what I think I’ve done is just lend my name to something that’s important and positively contributes to the department, college and University,” he said. “There are chemical engineering students now at UND who wouldn’t recognize me or my name, and that’s just fine.

“But what I hope this endowment represents is a commitment to teaching excellence. I want it to enhance opportunities for students and faculty at UND.”

Frank Bowman, who today holds the title of Thomas C. Owens Associate Professor, has been enhancing opportunities at UND for almost two decades, exactly as Owens described. The current chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, Bowman launched a project that trains elementary and middle school teachers of Native American and rural North Dakota students how to integrate engineering tasks into their classrooms.

He’s also developed high-quality online courses to enrich the student experience, a focus that has helped UND create one of the nation’s highest-ranked online engineering programs.




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