SMU Gets $30M Gift from O’Donnell Foundation for Data Science Institute, Digital Innovation Initiative

SMU President R. Gerald Turner said the gift will be evenly split between SMU's newly named O’Donnell Data Science and Research Computing Institute and an initiative for digital innovation in engineering and computer science in the Lyle School of Engineering.

The Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering at SMU

Dallas’ Southern Methodist University announced that The O’Donnell Foundation is donating $30 million to the university to create 10 endowed academic positions in engineering and data science, as well as to support research in those fields. It’s a gift that will elevate SMU’s standing as a premier global research institution, the university said.

SMU President R. Gerald Turner said the gift will be evenly split between SMU’s newly named O’Donnell Data Science and Research Computing Institute and an initiative for digital innovation in engineering and computer science.

The late Peter and Edith O’Donnell, whose foundation has provided a $30 million gift to SMU. [Photo: Southwestern Medical Foundation]

“Peter and Edith O’Donnell left a remarkable legacy of supporting education in North Texas and beyond,” Turner said in a statement. “This gift from their foundation is a milestone for us because it provides critical support for our decade-long strategy to strengthen SMU as a center for applying the latest technology to enhance innovation and learning.”

Created in 1957 by the late Peter O’Donnell Jr. and his late wife, Edith, the foundation has a long history of philanthropy in North Texas.

SMU said the donation includes endowment and operational gifts in two areas:

:: $15 million for the O’Donnell Data Science and Research Computing Institute, which launched in 2020 and serves as the hub for students and researchers across the campus and community who access the SMU supercomputing system and data science resources.

:: $15 million for the Initiative for Digital Innovation in Engineering and Computer Science in the Lyle School of Engineering, which will further strengthen interdisciplinary research and teaching across engineering fields.

The impact of the O’Donnell Foundation’s gift

The university launched its first supercomputer in 2014 and over the past 10 years, SMU said it has broadened data-driven curricula and research across disciplines with the aid of gifts for enhanced technology, endowed faculty positions, facilities that strengthen collaboration, and the creation of the Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies.

SMU said the gift will impact the university by:

  • Elevating SMU’s reputation as a hub for innovation, collaboration and interdisciplinary research.
  • Providing dynamic learning and research opportunities to employ data science in a number of fields across the University, including in engineering and computer science.
  • Supporting the SMU’s strategic goal of increasing the number of substantially endowed academic chairs and professorships.
  • Deepen the foundation’s previous contributions to SMU Ignited: Boldly Shaping Tomorrow, the University’s multiyear $1.5 billion campaign for impact, particularly the campaign’s goal to enrich teaching and research.

SMU said that 10 new endowed academic positions will be funded through the O’Donnell Foundation gift, bringing SMU’s total to 145 toward the 160 substantially endowed chairs and academic positions called for in the strategic plan.

SMU said the gift provides funding for research grants and technology upgrades.

“We believe, as did Peter O’Donnell, Jr., that high performance computing and the effective implementation of an integrated data science initiative are key components to the success of great modern universities,” William T. Solomon, O’Donnell Foundation president and CEO, said in a statement. “We are proud that Peter and Edith’s names will forever be connected with fueling future computational learning and discovery at SMU.”

The O’Donnell Data Science and Research Computing Institute

SMU said the O’Donnell Data Science and Research Computing Institute will be led by the O’Donnell Director of the institute; an endowed position created through a 2022 gift from the O’Donnell Foundation.

The university said that the foundation’s new gift provides endowment and operational funding for:

  • Technology and hardware that will be used by faculty across the University.
  • Startup research by faculty that employs data science approaches and shows promise of securing long-term external funding.
  • Two endowed professorships that will each provide two years of support for faculty in a wide variety of disciplines.
  • An endowed associate director position to manage the institute’s internal operations and enable the O’Donnell Director to focus on building interdisciplinary initiatives and external research partnerships that employ data science methods.

“Peter O’Donnell served the SMU Board of Trustees faithfully for nearly a decade, so the current trustees are particularly grateful for this gift from the O’Donnell Foundation,” SMU Board of Trustees Chair David B. Miller said in a statement. “Because Peter and Edith made enduring contributions to the University, they remain an integral part of the work SMU does to inspire its students, expand its research and improve its community.”

Funding the Initiative for Digital Innovation in Engineering and Computer Science

SMU said that the second half of the gift, the Initiative for Digital Innovation in Engineering and Computer Science in the Lyle School of Engineering, will promote interdisciplinary research and collaboration by future generations of engineers working together for a sustainable and smarter future.

That operational and endowment support will go to three endowed positions for department chairs, the first such positions in the history of SMU—in mechanical engineering, computer science, and electrical and computer engineering.

It will also support four additional endowed professorships, along with support for Ph.D. students and postdocs who will contribute to research projects led by the endowed faculty.

Pursuing ‘innovative research breakthroughs’

“The exponential creation of data and the need to understand it is profoundly changing the way universities must approach both educating students and pursuing research,” Elizabeth G. Loboa, SMU provost and vice president for academic affairs, said in a statement. “Data literacy for our students combined with the capability to use sophisticated computer modeling and artificial intelligence toward research is crucial to meeting many challenges here in North Texas and around the world. The O’Donnell Foundation’s gift is a major step for us in meeting those goals.”

Together, the O’Donnell Data Science and Research Computing Institute and the Lyle School’s Initiative for Digital Innovation in Engineering and Computer Science will foster collaboration with peer institutions and national partners and provide SMU students with dynamic opportunities to study in several specialized fields, SMU said.

The O’Donnell Institute and the Initiative for Digital Innovation also aim to help the university attract, support and retain outstanding faculty who conduct significant interdisciplinary research.

“When our supporters endow academic positions and provide related resources, they help SMU attract and retain outstanding faculty who create new knowledge for our students and pursue innovative research breakthroughs,” Brad E. Cheves, SMU vice president for Development and External Affairs, said in a statement. “We’re grateful to the O’Donnell Foundation for its investment in SMU and—through our students and research—our neighbors in North Texas and beyond.”

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