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Cal Poly San Luis Obispo receives $110 million, the largest private donation in CSU history

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo receives $110 million, the largest private donation in CSU history
An entrance to the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus. (Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg)

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has received $110 million — the largest private donation in the history of California State University — from William and Linda Frost, Cal State alumni who have worked extensively with administrators for more than a decade "to transform science and mathematics education at Cal Poly," school officials announced Wednesday.

Much of the donation will go toward a new multidisciplinary undergraduate research and technology center on campus. About $3.6 million annually is earmarked for student scholarships and research stipends, new lab equipment and the hiring of more instructors. Adding to the number of instructors will give faculty members more time to mentor undergraduate students in research — an experience that William Frost has expressed particular interest in supporting, officials said.

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The gift was announced with great fanfare Wednesday in a packed campus auditorium, with students, faculty, administrators, alumni, former campus leaders, city leaders and a state assemblyman in attendance. As green and gold confetti dropped, the crowd stood to applaud a couple that has pushed for years to increase hands-on math and science education at the 21,000-student campus.

"Bill and Linda's gift will impact the lives of countless Cal Poly students, right now and far into the future," the university's president, Jeffrey D. Armstrong, said. "Their willingness to think big is an inspiration to all of us and a model for how Cal Poly will continue to provide the creative thinkers and problem-solvers for today's complex global workforce."

The idea for a "transformational" donation began about a decade ago, when William Frost sat down with Phil Bailey, a longtime friend and dean of the university's College of Science and Mathematics, to discuss how to strengthen math and science research for undergraduates. Frost graduated in 1972 with a degree in biochemistry and went on to establish the Paso Robles company Chemlogics, which was sold in 2013 for $1.3 billion. His wife, Linda, earned a biology degree from San Jose State.

"We sat down with a blank piece of paper and thought: What could we build? What is the vision? What are the entire realm of possibilities that we could do?" said William Frost, who often talks about "finding needs to fill" and the two big lessons he learned while at Cal Poly: "First was the notion that I could sell an idea. Second, I learned how to solve problems, which involved navigating through all the ambiguities created in the process of research, sorting out the data, and piecing it back together like a puzzle. These two concepts have stayed with me ever since, and they are an integral part of my success."

Frost and Bailey decided to start by increasing summer research opportunities. To that end, the Frosts donated $200,000 toward student stipends each summer. With a matched donation from the college and additional funds from faculty grants, more than 200 students now receive $2,500 research stipends each year, according to the university.

With more undergraduate research came the need for more space and new labs. The new interdisciplinary complex, which will be located in the center of campus, will include 18,000 square feet of lab space for chemistry and molecular biology, computational tools for mathematics and statistics, instrumentation for physics, and wet labs for chemistry and molecular biology.

"Working with Bill on this project has been a highlight of my career," said Bailey, who is retiring in June after almost 50 years at Cal Poly. "This gift represents a genuine desire by the Frosts to provide Cal Poly students with research experiences that promote intellectual growth fueled by curiosity, critical and creative thinking and personal initiative."

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