Gift from Gwen and Chuck Lillis boosts volcanology faculty cluster

Oregon’s geography has been shaped by volcanic forces, and it still has four volcanoes with high potential for a major eruption. Now, thanks to a major gift from two longtime donors, the state is poised to become a global center of volcanic activity in a beneficial way.

Gwendolyn Lillis and Charles Lillis — University of Oregon advocates, volunteers and benefactors — have committed $10 million to endow faculty positions for two expert researchers in the UO’s Department of Earth Sciences. Combined with already-prominent volcanologists on faculty, and the recent appointment of volcanologist Thomas Giachetti, the new hires aim to elevate the UO’s research capabilities and prominence in the field.

University of Oregon President Michael Schill said the gift helps to form a volcanology cluster of excellence — part of the university’s drive to increase its number of tenured research faculty.

“I am so delighted that the Lillises have made another amazing investment in our university,” Schill said. “Chuck and Gwen have served in virtually every university leadership role one can play, and their support has been inspirational. This gift is a vote of confidence in our top objective of building our academic and research profile. It will enable an excellent department to become a pre-eminent one.”

The Lillis gift leverages internal resources from the College of Arts and Sciences that have been allocated to quickly start the hiring process. It comes at an opportune time by focusing attention on the UO’s investment in advance of a major international volcanology conference that takes place in Portland in 2017, said Paul Wallace, professor in earth sciences at the UO and head of the volcanology faculty cluster.

“Our goal is to secure one top-flight specialist in satellite remote sensing and geodesy and another in computational modeling,” Wallace said. “This group will focus on the use of new technologies for monitoring volcanoes and their eruptions to help protect people and infrastructure worldwide.”

Volcano research has taken on new importance as the world has become more interconnected and its population has swelled. Wallace said an estimated 600 million people are at direct risk from ash plumes, pyroclastic flows and other kinds of eruptive activity, particularly in Pacific Rim countries (including the United States) and in many developing nations where the exceptionally fertile soils along volcanic flanks have attracted legions of farmers.

Meanwhile, the economic effects of eruptions are felt globally, such as when ash in the atmosphere after a 2010 eruption in Iceland closed down Western Europe’s airports at a cost of $1.7 billion.

“These hires will enable the university to capitalize on one of its proven strengths,” Chuck Lillis said. “Gwen and I have been inspired by the great work of our volcanologists. We see this as an investment that will accelerate their research here and will ultimately lead to greater safety for those that live in the arc of active volcanoes.”

As part of their gift the Lillises have put forth a $2 million dollar challenge to encourage others to join them in investing in the program’s great potential. Their hope is that future, additional support can expand research to reap benefits in the promising area of geothermal energy.

The UO’s department has been a national leader since volcanologist Alexander McBirney created the Center for Volcanology in 1965. By increasing the program’s research activity, the new additions will also better position the department to compete for major grants such as those from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA.

For more about UO volcanology, see “Magmatic Attraction” in the autumn 2015 Inside Oregon.

With the hirings, the UO will move closer to completing “Securing National Prominence in Volcanology, Volcanic Hazards, and Geothermal Energy,” the fourth of 10 proposed faculty clusters of excellence funded since the October 2014 public launch of its $2 billion funding campaign.

The Energy and Sustainable Materials and the Center for Genome Function clusters moved forward with funds from licensing revenues and the UO's strategic investment process. The Health Promotion and Obesity Prevention group in the College of Education was funded by a $20 million gift from UO alumna and trustee Connie Ballmer and her husband Steve.

Gwen Lillis is managing general partner of Castle Rock Investments, managing director of the Lillis Family Foundation and former assistant professor at the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business. She is a former chair and current emerita member of the UO Foundation Board of Trustees.

She also serves as chair of the Charles H. Lundquist College of Business Board of Advisors and on the university’s campaign cabinet. She holds a bachelor’s degree in French, German and theatre design and a master’s of business administration in finance from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a doctorate in business from Northwestern University.

Chair of the Board of Trustees of the University of Oregon, Chuck Lillis was the first in his family to attend college, earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in business administration from the University of Washington and his doctorate in 1972 from the UO's Lundquist College of Business. He began his career as a business professor at Washington State University, shifted to General Electric as director of corporate marketing and research, and then served as dean of business at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

He went on to a successful career in the telecommunications industry, becoming chairman and CEO of MediaOne Group, now part of Comcast. He was also cofounder and principal of Lone Tree Capital and cofounder and managing partner of Castle Pines Capital, now a division of Wells Fargo. Lillis has been a member of the foundation boards at the University of Washington and the University of Colorado at Boulder, has served on the boards of private and public companies, and also serves as a trustee of the Lillis Foundation. He is a U.S. Army veteran.

At the University of Oregon, the couple’s lead gifts made possible construction of the Lillis Business Complex, and they have given generously to the Lundquist College of Business, athletics, scholarships and the theater arts department.

“Gwen and Chuck’s incredible generosity has spanned two decades and multiple campaigns and has remained steadfast during a period of unprecedented change at the University of Oregon,” said Mike Andreasen, vice president of advancement. “Each in their own way has shown an amazing level of commitment to the university. Together, they have inspired us to dream of new heights of academic achievement beyond what we would have dared otherwise. The challenging goals we’ve set can only be achieved with the support and encouragement of donors like Gwen and Chuck.”