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Building the Future of Engineering Education and Research

kao_family.jpg The College of Engineering has been waiting since 1962 for the construction of a new engineering building. As of July 2005, the wait is over as planning begins for not one, but two new engineering facilities on the UT Knoxville campus. “We are thrilled that we have reached this milestone,” said COE Dean Way Kuo. “This is an unprecedented event in the history of our college.”

The construction of a new engineering building was one of the main goals on Kuo's agenda when he was named dean in June 2004. The cumulative effect of years of tight budgets had created an urgent need for upgraded classrooms and laboratories, and had resulted in a severe space shortage. Many of the college's existing facilities, including Perkins and Dougherty Halls, were far down the list of state capital improvement priorities. Estabrook Hall, the second-oldest building on campus, was near the top, but college administrators had been waiting almost eight years for state approval of renovation funding.

Enter Dr. Min Kao, chairman and CEO of the Garmin Corporation, one of the world's largest manufacturers of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) products.

Kao, who received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from UT in 1975 and 1977, respectively, had stayed in touch through the years with his faculty advisor, James Hung. In early 2004, Kao contacted Hung regarding the possibility of making a gift of lasting value to the university. Hung suggested donating funds for a new electrical and computer engineering building.

Dr. Samir El-Ghazaly, professor and head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was out of town on business when he received an urgent phone call from Hung requesting a meeting. When the two professors finally got together, Hung told El-Ghazaly that an anonymous donor had approached him with an offer of a $1 million donation to provide scholarships to the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). Delighted at the news, El-Ghazaly was even more surprised to hear that the same donor was considering a major gift to a university for a building, and that UT had a very good chance of being the recipient.

UT and COE administrators worked diligently to create an exciting proposal for the new building. Their efforts paid off when Kao committed to providing $12.5 million for the facility.

“It was a dream turned into reality,” El-Ghazaly commented. “The magnitude of this truly transformational gift is huge.” Kao's donation for the new facility allowed UT and COE administrators to approach Tennessee's governor, Phil Bredesen, with a proposal to see if the funding could be matched by the state in order to expedite the construction of the building. Bredesen included the $25 million in his proposed 2005-2006 budget, and the state legislature approved the funding in June of 2005, enhancing the building initiative to a total of $37.5 million.

The new 150,000 square foot building will be constructed on the east side of the Hill between the Dougherty Engineering Building and Cumberland Avenue. It will include two “clean rooms” to create microelectronic devices and nanotechnology-related fabrications. The building is the campus's first new engineering facility since the Dougherty Engineering Building was constructed in 1962. The facility will be named the Min Kao Electrical and Computer Engineering Building in honor of Dr. Kao's generosity.

“I am fortunate to be in a position to give back to a university that did so much for me,” Kao said. “The University of Tennessee opened its doors and offered me an opportunity to grow in my field. I hope the new facility will allow others to pursue their dreams and will further position UT as a gateway to great things in engineering and innovation.”

Kao also pledged an additional $5 million to match other private donations up to the same amount, with the goal of generating a $10 million endowment for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. This unique public-private partnership will allow the re-named Min H. Kao Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering to offer world-class educational and research opportunities.

“Obviously, we will include state-of-the-art laboratories for education and research and modern classrooms in the new building,” El-Ghazaly stated. “We will provide the students with a much more comfortable and appropriate learning environment.”

George Criss, UT's Director of Facilities Planning, said that the State Building Commission has approved the project, and surveys and preliminary site analyses are currently taking place. The Knoxville firms of Bullock, Smith and Partners and Lindsay and Maples Architects have been selected to design the new ECE building. Both firms have extensive experience with UT-Knoxville capital projects. Lindsay and Maples Architects designed the Science and Engineering Research Facility (SERF), and Bullock, Smith and Partners were the designers of the Biotechnology Research Facility on the UT agricultural campus.

“Since we are an urban campus, almost every building site is a challenge,” Criss commented. “The new ECE building site has similar building conditions that we faced for SERF in the early '90s. The SERF building took about 24 months, and I foresee right now that the new ECE building will take about that length of time to complete.”

COE Dean Way Kuo said the new building is the result of collaborative efforts between Kao, UT administrators and state officials. “Dr. Kao's gift provided us with the chance to put a new engineering building before the governor and the state legislatures as a viable option,” Kuo said.

As if a $37.5 million donation and the prospect of a new building did not provide enough good news, the state legislature also approved $16.6 million in funding for the reconstruction of Estabrook Hall.