Asbjornson’s donation sets record, draws attention

As a countdown clock promising a major announcement ticked down on MSU’s website Monday morning, hundreds of individuals — ranging from the governor to mayor, university officials to cheerleaders, professors and students — gathered in the lobby of Engineering and Physical Science building to celebrate the largest-ever gift in Montana history.

Norm Asbjornson, a MSU alumnus and Winifred, Mont. native, committed to give the MSU College of Engineering $50 million to build a new engineering and innovation center. The building will be named the Norm Asbjornson Innovation Center, an innovative laboratory and classroom center aimed at interdisciplinary learning.

President Cruzado announced the donation at the Monday morning press conference, saying it is a gift that will “transform the lives of generations of students.” She continued, “[Asbjornson]  is very well known in our College of Engineering, where faculty, students and staff recognize his name as synonymous of success and generosity.”

Montana Governor Steve Bullock said the gift was an embodiment of the Montana spirit “of giving back of those who helped you along the path.” Also present were Bozeman Mayor Jeff Krauss, ASMSU President Lindsay Murdock and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian, all of whom thanked Asbjornson for his generosity.

According to President Cruzado, over 5,000 people watched the press conference live as it was webcasted by University Communications and PBS. This included people in all 50 states and numerous other countries.

Bjornson, 78, graduated from then Montana State College in 1960 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He also was awarded an honorary doctorate in engineering from MSU and the Board of Regents in 2004.

In 1988 Asbjornson founded and became president of AAON, a manufacturer of rooftop heating, ventilation and air conditional equipment. According to Cruzado, today AAON has annual revenues exceeding $300 million and employs more 1,400 employees.

Asbjornson recounted his journey from driving a tractor at age 6 and collecting bottles and cans for a penny apiece to being the head of company Forbes named one of the best small companies in the country.

Asbjornson said he wished to convey to students that “those who are most successful are also those who have failed the most.” His own success he credits to his willingness to take risks and  “always reaching higher, [being] never satisfied.”

“I think it’s an absolute must for everyone to give back to what made them successful,” He said. “I can’t repay those who helped me, for they’re gone. But I can give to the next generation.”

In 2003, Asbjornson endowed a $1 million scholarship fund for graduates of Montana high schools with less than 100 students. In 2006, Asbjornson additionally donated more than $600,000 in equipment, cash and technical advice to create a heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) laboratory in the College.

The College of Engineering has been the fastest growing college at MSU for the past two years and currently has 3,102 students. Over the past decade, from fall 2003 to fall 2013, the College had a 48.4 percent rise in enrollment.

College of Engineering Dean Brett Gunnink said that although there has been large growth in terms of faculty, students and staff, there has been no substantial increase in teaching lab or classroom space since the EPS building was completed in 1997.

Included in the audience was Jake Jabs, who in 2011 donated $25 million to MSU’s College of Business — previously the largest gift in state history. During his speech, Bjornson pointed out Jabs in the audience, saying he observed Jabs’ donation and thought, “Huh, that’s a good idea.”

This month,MSU officials are asking the Board of Regents permission to spend $5 million to start planning and designing the building. Breaking ground on the new facility is expected to happen by spring of 2016. Asbjornson said he hopes the building can be the anchor point of campus’ expansion south.