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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2018 / March 

Virginia Tech alumnus David Calhoun gives historic $20 million to transform honors education

March 19, 2018

David Calhoun
David Calhoun '79

In a powerful statement on the need to reimagine higher education for today’s complex world, David Calhoun ’79, senior managing director for Blackstone and former CEO of Nielsen, has made the largest-ever gift to Virginia Tech’s Honors College.

Calhoun’s $20 million donation supports the launch of a pilot model of collaborative learning within the Honors College. The Calhoun Honors Discovery Program’s emphasis will be equipping graduates with knowledge and skills to succeed in today’s complex and dynamic society. Calhoun’s gift endows $15 million to help recruit and retain Discovery Program participants, which ultimately will benefit 200 Honors College students each year. This portion of the gift ties the largest scholarship endowment ever created at Virginia Tech. The additional $5 million of Calhoun’s gift will be used to develop and teach the curriculum of the Discovery Program and to launch the Calhoun Center for Higher Education Innovation.

“This is a game-changing gift for Virginia Tech and the Honors College students who will have the opportunity to develop skills that are essential for success,” said university President Tim Sands. “In the years to come, experience with diverse teams, design thinking, transdisciplinary discovery and communication will be indispensable, and thanks to Dave’s remarkable and inspiring generosity, these students will be better prepared.”

Calhoun, of Sunapee, New Hampshire, said his gift reflects gratitude for Virginia Tech’s formative role in his life, and his desire to make higher education more accessible and effective.

“The most significant thing that happened in my life in terms of developing the confidence to succeed was graduating from Tech,” said Calhoun, who earned his bachelor’s in accounting from what is now the Pamplin College of Business. “I always felt advantaged because of it. I’m lucky to often be asked how things can improve in our economy and lives, and I always come back to one thing: education. This gift is a combination of my love of the school and interest in doing something good on the education front.”

Calhoun has chosen to support a pilot program that was conceived by a small working group that included faculty from multiple Virginia Tech colleges. The project recently moved into a new phase, and a design team is refining details of the program.

The vision is for honors students to form meaningful connections between what they learn in their academic majors and the key concepts of other disciplines. These students will bring their integrated understanding of cross-cutting concepts into transdisciplinary, hands-on problem solving experiences that will engage partners in industry and other professional sectors.

The Calhoun Honors Discovery Program will build upon Virginia Tech’s vibrant Pathways for General Education, a longstanding effort to help students connect different disciplines and experiences through high-level concepts. The Discovery Program will also emphasize transdisciplinary approaches to problem solving in keeping with the university’s Destination Areas. A key goal of the program is to enable students to integrate multiple perspectives, which will allow them to form new insights as professionals.

“In big companies and business, it takes us 15-20 years to develop somebody who really understands how to package interdisciplinary actions,” Calhoun said. “If students graduate from college with some of that agency, and have some of that ability to bring a variety of disciplines to solve a problem — and they have practiced that — then they will come into companies ready and raring to contribute. Throughout my business life in the big systems engineering world — whether it’s in the energy world or the aviation world or the transportation world, or my world of data analytics with the Nielsen company — one of the most difficult challenges is the development of people who understand different disciplines and know which to bring to bear on projects.”

Moving beyond disciplinary boundaries to solve complex problems more effectively is a major strategic priority at Virginia Tech, which is exploring new ways to accomplish this goal in education and research.

“Mr. Calhoun is helping us realize an amazing opportunity for implementing cutting-edge ideas in higher education,” Interim Provost Cyril Clarke said. “This program has implications throughout our university and beyond. We plan to collaborate across colleges and disciplines, and to form deep partnerships with industry. We expect to create a model that other universities will follow.”

Starting in 2019, 50 first-year students, known as Calhoun Honors Discovery Fellows, will receive scholarships from the endowed portion of Calhoun’s gift. In each of the following three academic years, 50 additional first-year students will receive scholarships from Calhoun’s endowed gift, which ultimately will support up to 200 students at a time.

Calhoun Honors Discovery Fellows will vary in their undergraduate major subjects, but all will participate in additional opportunities and experiential-learning delivered through the Calhoun Honors Discovery Program. The pilot program will initially include select honors students with majors in four partnering Virginia Tech colleges: architecture and urban studies, engineering, science, and business.

“Along with students, Dave’s generosity will support the faculty and partnerships needed to make this a model program,” said Honors College Dean Paul Knox. “His impact on the Honors College, and Virginia Tech, is truly incredible.”

Calhoun is one of the most generous donors in Virginia Tech’s history, with a long and distinguished record of engagement and philanthropy. Along with his wife, Barbara, Calhoun is a member of the President’s Circle within the Ut Prosim Society of donors. He is on the Pamplin Advisory Council and has served on the Virginia Tech Foundation Board. Calhoun delivered the University Commencement address in 2005. He co-chaired the university’s past fundraising campaign, which successfully concluded in 2011. In 2015, Calhoun received the university’s Alumni Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes individuals for their contributions to the university.

“Dave’s partnerships make Virginia Tech a better university,” Sands said. “He is helping us create a higher education experience that will prepare our graduates for success and meaningful service in the rapidly changing world they will enter. We are thankful for his dedication to his alma mater, and his commitment to our ongoing transformation.”

Written by Rich Polikoff