The founder of SRA International Inc., Ernst Volgenau, and his wife, Sara, have donated $10 million to George Mason University's School of Information Technology and Engineering, the largest personal grant in the university's history and a sign of its tight ties with the region's technology sector.
The announcement was made to about 600 faculty and community members gathered Friday for the 20th anniversary celebration of the School of IT and Engineering, which will be named for the Volgenaus.
The school, which also began a drive to raise $10 million more over the next five years, is undertaking an ambitious effort to become a premier technical institution.
"My goal is to build a school that has an international reputation for research in IT and engineering and a reputation locally as the place where the best and brightest students are produced," Alan G. Merten, the university's president, said in an interview.
The 33-year-old university, and its engineering school in particular, are closely entwined with the local business sector, which often hires GMU students as interns and sends dozens of professionals to work as adjunct professors at the college.
The money should help cement that position after debate among state officials last year over whether another school, such as Virginia Tech, should put a research-based campus in Northern Virginia.
Merten said he hopes the investment by Volgenau will spur greater support from others in the region.
"It's more than just a gift; for me it's a symbol of the maturation of Northern Virginia and GMU," Merten said. "I hope it's a signal to the business community of Northern Virginia that this is what it's going to take to have a great school of engineering," Merten said.
Volgenau founded SRA in the basement of his Reston home in 1978. Now based in the Fair Lakes area of Fairfax County, it grew steadily through the 1980s and 1990s, building computer systems for agencies such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Defense Department.
In 2002 the company held a $103.5 million initial public offering. Today it has a $1.78 billion market capitalization and 4,600 employees.
Volgenau stepped down as SRA's chief executive last November but remains chairman. He and his wife have a foundation focused on conservation and the education of inner city children. The GMU gift was not drawn from the foundation. It was prompted, Volgenau said, by his concern about the waning number of U.S. students pursuing careers in technology.
"At SRA we have a terrible time recruiting competent technical people because they're in short supply," Volgenau said. "The answer is for us to invest more in science and engineering research . . . and in order to be a world-class research university, GMU really needs private funds."
The university will soon break ground on a $45 million, 180-square-foot building to house the expanding IT and engineering school, which has 4,200 undergraduate and graduate students. The new building will include 20,000 feet of space for companies that want to collaborate with the university's researchers.
The Volgenaus' donation will be used to recruit and hire professors and to expand the school's academic programs. GMU plans to create a bio-engineering department that will focus on the intersection of biology and technology.
"Since this is cash, we can use it to dramatically attract brand new faculty in areas like bio-IT," said Lloyd Griffiths, dean of the department. "Without it, we wouldn't even be able to think about creating a bio-engineering department in less than 10 years."