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Cornell Celebrates Johnson Gift and Legacy of Support

Fisk Johnson, CEO and chairman of SC Johnson, is welcomed to the Statler Auditorium stage Jan. 31 by, from right, President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes, Interim President Hunter Rawlings, and Cornell SC Johnson College of Business Dean Soumitra Dutta. Photo by Robert Barker/University Photography.

Warm anecdotes of one family’s long and inspiring engagement with Cornell set the tone of a “thank you” event Jan. 31 at the Statler Auditorium on campus.

“It is a new day for the study of business at this university – the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business will be a powerhouse in business education,” said Interim President Hunter Rawlings at a celebration of a $150 million gift from H. Fisk Johnson ’79, M.Eng. ’80, M.S. ’82, MBA ’84, Ph.D. ’86, and SC Johnson, the family company he leads.

“We owe this momentous event to Fisk Johnson and his family as well as to the SC Johnson company, who are partnering to provide this remarkable donation. The Johnsons are, quite simply, one of the very great families of Cornell,” Rawlings told an enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowd at the Statler, with hundreds more watching the livestream in overflow rooms and online.

Johnson speaks to the crowd gathered at Statler Auditorium. Watch the event on CornellCast. Photo by Jason Koski/University Photography.

It is the largest single gift ever given to Cornell’s Ithaca campus, and “it demonstrates tremendous confidence in the new College of Business, uniting three superb and distinctive schools,” and creating synergies among them, Rawlings said. The newly named Cornell SC Johnson College of Business comprises the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, the School of Hotel Administration, and the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.

The gift employs a strategy used by philanthropist and Cornell benefactor Charles Feeney ’56 to leverage support from others. A third of the gift, $50 million, will be used as a challenge match on a 1:3 basis to increase the impact of other donors funding new endowments, giving the gift a potential impact of $300 million.

Rawlings and Johnson shake hands during the event. Photo by Robert Barker/University Photography.

Several alumni have expressed interest in donating, including John Dyson, whose family named the Dyson School, Rawlings said.

The remaining $100 million of the Johnson gift will form an endowment that provides critical, permanent support for faculty, students, and programs.

With the formation of the business college last year and with the opening of the Cornell Tech campus later this year in New York City, “I really believed that the business program here had a huge opportunity in front of it, and that there couldn’t be a better time to make this gift to get this new vision for Cornell business and the three schools off to a really strong start,” Johnson said. He added that this was “a wonderful opportunity to do something at Cornell,” a place where his family has been connected for generations.

The Big Red Band leads the audience in singing the alma mater at the close of the event. Photo by Jason Koski/University Photography.

He added that his grandfather, Herbert F. Johnson Jr. ’22, came to Cornell after the family business tried to expand from wax products to offer an antifreeze for the Ford Model T. The antifreeze contained salt, which rusted the radiators. “My grandfather was hurried off to Cornell to get a chemistry degree. He was our company’s very first chemist,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s experience at Cornell, including being a member of the Chi Psi fraternity, was “life-changing,” he said. “I just wanted a chance to give a little back to Cornell that it has given to me throughout my life.”

Johnson, Rawlings, Rhodes, and Dutta attend a press conference following the celebration. Photo by Robert Barker/University Photography.

Soumitra Dutta, dean of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, said, “In higher education, significant naming gifts – especially ones of this magnitude … are game-changers.” The gift lends confidence to the program, and the “power of this confidence – the message it sends to those within and outside of our campus – cannot be underestimated,” Dutta said.

The gift will help build synergies between the college’s three schools, including becoming a world leader in the business of food through the Dyson School’s and the Hotel School’s combined expertise, he said. The three-year-old Johnson-Cornell Tech MBA “is creating business leaders with deep knowledge of technology” and leveraging ideas from the digital revolution in business, Dutta said.

President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes spoke about the Johnson family’s history at Cornell and his friendships with Johnson family members over four decades, including Sam Johnson ’50 and his wife Imogene Powers Johnson ’52; and Fisk and his siblings Curt Johnson ’77, Helen Johnson-Leipold ’78, and Winnie Johnson Marquart ’81.

When the Cornell Board of Trustees approved the naming of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management in 1984, it did so to express its gratitude, but also to “acknowledge the commitment to humane management and uncompromising quality that the Johnson name came to signify in the business world,” Rhodes said.

Johnson takes a selfie during a reception in the Statler’s Park Atrium. Photo by Jason Koski/University Photography.

“Giant towers rest on a foundation of visionary purpose,” Rhodes said, quoting legendary Cornell historian Morris Bishop, Class of 1913, M.A. ’14.

“Fisk, our deepest thanks to you and your family and your company, for providing a foundation of visionary purpose through your generosity and your commitment to the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business,” he said.

This story originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.