The Billy Dunavant Foundation has given the University of Memphis $5.5 million to establish five endowed chairs as well as professorships, the U of M announced in a release Monday, Oct. 3.
The money will fund three Dunavant chairs in supply chain management and one in agritech and regenerative agriculture. It will also help start the Laura Butler Ford chair in nursing.
Part of the grant will also be matched by the $50 million in endowment funds the state pledged to give the U of M to sustain its research activity.
“This generous gift allows the university to strategically build on our strengths by investing in disciplines where we have significant research potential,” U of M President Bill Hardgrave said in the release.
“Endowed chairs allow us to attract and retain faculty who will provide leadership for the development and implementation of major research initiatives. Investments like this are vital to our future as a top research university.”
Dunavant was a prominent local businessman who graduated from the U of M in 1954. Dunavant served as the CEO of his father’s company, Dunavant Enterprises.
He died at the age of 88 in September 2021.
“Billy would be thrilled that his gift is not only supporting outstanding faculty at his alma mater but is also being amplified by the match from the State of Tennessee,” Dunavant’s widow, Tommie, said in the release.
This isn’t the first time the university has been gifted money by Dunavant.
Since 1999, more than 40 professorships at the university’s College of Arts and Sciences have been awarded and funded by a grant from Dunavant. Those who are awarded the professorships are given $5,000 annually for three years to fund their research efforts.
Four are awarded each year.
Dunavant started the fund in honor of Ralph Faudree, who was dean of the college from 1995 to 2000.
The grant from the Dunavant foundation also follows the university’s recent achievement of Carnegie R1 status, a distinction that speaks to the high volume of research it conducts.
It had been a strategic goal of the university under former President David Rudd. Now, Hardgrave wants to focus on keeping that status.
He announced at the school’s most recent Board of Trustees meeting that maintaining R1 status would be a part of the university’s new strategic plan that is being developed.
“The things that are in (the previous strategic plan) certainly couldn’t have anticipated where we are in the world and where we are in higher education,” Hardgrave said at the meeting.
Gov. Bill Lee also proposed in January that the U of M receive $50 million to form an endowment fund that would help it maintain its R1 status.
Lee made the proposal in his most recent State of the State address.
When he made the proposal, he specifically mentioned a desire to see Memphis become a leader in agritech, a field for which the Dunavant grant helps fund a chair.
The U of M said at the time it would match the state’s funding and had raised $14 million.