Started in 1923 as a two-year teacher’s college in southern New Jersey, Rowan University is today home to 14,000 students, and one of only 56 institutions in the country granting full degrees in engineering, business, education, and medicine. Its unlikely rise was propelled by Henry Rowan’s 1992 donation of $100 million—at that point the largest gift ever offered to a public college.
Having grown up amid the Depression, during which his family lost all of its money and his parents divorced, Rowan later recorded in his autobiography that his mother embedded within him “a doctrine of thrift and self-reliance” and “an inner drive that has no off switch.” After service in World War II as a B-17 pilot he completed an electrical engineering degree at MIT, then started work at a big company that made metal-melting furnaces. Finding the managers unresponsive to his suggested improvements, he sold his family home, moved into a rental, and used the equity to start his own business, building its first furnace in his cellar and backyard.
Eventually Rowan’s Inductotherm Industries became a multihundred-million dollar company, but he and his wife, Betty, continued to shop carefully, drive older American cars, and live simply. In the early 1990s, Glassboro State College, an undistinguished school near Rowan’s home, asked for a small contribution. He took a liking to some of the ambitious administrators and students and told them, “We should be teaching people how to build things, how to create real wealth, real jobs. Maybe we should be talking about industrial engineering, not business administration.” He eventually offered the college $100 million on the condition that it establish an excellent engineering school. Glassboro obliged, and made a decision to change its name to Rowan University to boot. Thus began a meteoric rise that yielded a chemical-engineering program ranked third in the country (which feeds graduates to employers across the region), the first new medical school in New Jersey in more than a generation, and solid technical education in a range of fields.
“I give MIT a little every year for a scholarship program,” Rowan explained later, but “MIT has billions of dollars stashed away,” whereas in south Jersey his donation made a huge difference. “It turned out marvelously,” Rowan concluded, while nonetheless keeping his business and philanthropic contributions in perspective: “We have 5,000 employees…. We’ve been averaging $200 million a year in sales in New Jersey. Over the years, we’ve probably paid out $3 billion in salaries and expenditures locally. That’s worth far more to south Jersey than even $100 million to the college.”
- Profile in Rowan alumni magazine, rowanmagazine.com/assets/pdfs/1997/spring/henryrowan.pdf
- History of Rowan University, rowan.edu/open/subpages/about/history