Recognizing an international need for leaders who can harness technology to solve societal problems, alumnus and innovator in education Dennis J. Keller ’63 and his wife, Constance Templeton Keller, have given Princeton University $25 million to strengthen links between engineering and the liberal arts.
The Kellers’ gift will endow and name the University’s recently created Center for Innovation in Engineering Education in addition to supporting other initiatives in engineering and ecology.
The new center fosters teaching and student projects that cross conventional academic disciplines, preparing students in all fields—within engineering and across the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences—to work side by side to solve problems.
“Major issues facing society today—energy, environment, health, security—require a mix of technological, political, economic and historical perspectives,” said President Shirley M. Tilghman. “The Kellers, in their tremendous generosity, recognize that need and have given us an exceptionally strong foundation on which to integrate engineering into a liberal arts education.”
The gift builds on Princeton’s longstanding strength in educating engineers who are broadly grounded in the liberal arts and can reach beyond purely technical approaches to achieve wise and creative solutions. The new center also seeks to extend those connections by creating and supporting engineering courses that attract liberal arts students. For all students, the center emphasizes entrepreneurship, leadership and service.
This initiative comes at a time when studies of the engineering profession and economic competitiveness, including two recent reports from the National Academies, are calling for better integration of technical problem solving within a general education. “With its strengths in both engineering and the liberal arts, Princeton is in a unique position to respond to the need for a new approach to engineering education,” said H. Vincent Poor, dean of engineering. “The gift from Dennis and Connie Keller will help set a standard that we expect will have an impact well beyond Princeton.”
The pursuit of innovation in engineering education has a personal resonance for Dennis Keller, a charter trustee and vice chair of the executive committee of the Princeton University Board of Trustees. Keller is the founding chairman of DeVry Inc., one of the world's largest publicly held higher education organizations. DeVry provides educational opportunities to more than 100,000 students worldwide, with an emphasis on preparing them for careers in technology, health care, business and management.
“The quality of life for all societies is increasingly connected to our ability to understand, enhance and use technologies,” said Keller. “Since the rise of civilization, engineering has been integral to the development of societies and has helped people lead richer and more satisfying lives. More than ever, we must equip our graduates to be effective and innovative in deploying technology in the service of our nation and all nations.”
Currently, 60 percent of nonengineering students at Princeton take at least one engineering course; one of the center's goals is to push that percentage to 100. Princeton's School of Engineering and Applied Science currently offers more than 20 courses that engage students from outside the engineering school. These courses place technology in a social and historical context, emphasize entrepreneurship and provide substantial exposure to issues such as energy, the environment, cybersecurity and telecommunications. The gift will strengthen those courses and encourage the development of new ones. It also will support internships, entrepreneurial activities and a vibrant program of lectures and visiting professorships from leaders in business, government and academics.
“We see all students as engineering students,” said Sharad Malik, director of the newly named Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education. “Despite its pivotal role in modern life, engineering has often been perceived as an isolated discipline. I am extremely grateful to have the Kellers' support in pushing hard in a new direction, shaping an education that spans engineering, the sciences and the humanities and connects academic learning to societal needs.”
In addition to their support for the Keller Center, the Kellers designated $2.5 million of their gift for a general innovation fund in engineering. Another $2.5 million will support the Mpala Research Center in Kenya, where Princeton ecologists, biologists and engineers collaborate with colleagues from around the world on issues related to the sustainable use of land, water and animal resources.
As an economics major, Keller said it was uncommon at that time for nonengineers to take engineering courses, but the culture of exploring various disciplines was firmly in place. He said he benefited particularly from courses in Roman history and religion. “Princeton already attracts engineers who see the advantages of drawing on a liberal arts environment,” said Keller, who co-chairs the engineering school’s advisory council. “We would also like the rest of the students at Princeton to benefit from coursework in engineering and technology that will give them a whole new outlook on their lives.”
Poor, who was the founding director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering Education before becoming dean, said the Kellers’ gift provides a foundational piece of the school’s strategic plan for growth, which is focused on solving problems related to energy, environment, health and security and preparing leaders to make wise use of technology. The gift is part of Aspire: A Plan for Princeton, which includes a goal of raising $325 million to support “Engineering and a Sustainable Society.”
Dennis Keller is also a longtime supporter of Princeton's Annual Giving effort, currently serving as class leadership chair, as a national committee member for AG regional leadership, and as a special gifts solicitor.
In addition to his work at DeVry and Princeton, Keller serves as a trustee of the University of Chicago, where he earned his master's in business administration. Connie Keller chairs the board of trustees of the Nature Conservancy of Illinois. The Kellers are residents of Oak Brook, Ill.
In 2001, the Kellers made a major gift to support the construction of the Friend Center for Engineering Education, named in honor of Peter Friend, Keller’s lifelong friend and roommate, who was killed during their junior year. With its outstanding classroom, library and meeting spaces, the Friend Center has served as a physical connection between engineering and the rest of campus.
“Dennis’ wise counsel and support have been invaluable to Princeton,” said Poor. “All Princeton students for many generations—and the communities around the world where they make their mark—will benefit from his and Connie's generosity.”