Al and Lila Self represented the best in philanthropy.
Not because they donated a good deal of their self-made fortune to good causes, including $106 million to the University of Kansas, which is where they met and where Al earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1943.
And not because their latest, and final, gift of $58 million, announced this week, is the largest the university has received.
Gifts of that size make a philanthropist significant, but not necessarily great.
Al and Lila Self were great philanthropists because they gave away their money in a strategic, unselfish way. Too many big donors to higher education are partly motivated by vanity. They want their name on a building.
KU’s Lawrence campus does boast the Self Computing Commons in Eaton Hall. But the Selfs wanted most of their money to go directly to students.
“They were not big believers in bricks and mortar, but were more about investing in people,” Dale Seuferling, president of KU Endowment, told the Kansas City Star.
Campuses do need state-of-the-art educational facilities, but there is an arms race going on to build ever more grandiose buildings and even lavish rec centers. And let’s not even get started on the athletic palaces. But we run the risk of these places becoming like castles on the hill — inaccessible to the students who are supposed to occupy them.
Over the years, the Selfs have given to scholarship funds for graduate fellowships and for engineering and pharmacy students. Their latest gift of $58 million— from their estate, as both Al and Lila died in 2013 — will go toward fellowships and scholarships for students studying business, economics, science, technology, engineering and math.
The largest amount, $39 million, will be added to a fellowship fund for doctoral students. The Selfs, who communicated with KU leaders frequently, thought it was important to support students who had identified a career path and were likely to complete the educational requirements, Seuferling said.
That’s an admirably strategic approach to improve the chances for a return on investment.
Al and Lila Self grew a small chemical company with three employees, the Bee Chemical Co. of Lansing, Ill., into a multinational company. Al Self later became CEO of Tioga International. They were great alumna who gave back to KU in the best possible way.
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