Vice president for advancement Kirk Shisler (center) chats with guests about proposed renovations of the Suter Science Center at an open house in 2013. (Photo by Chelsie Gordon)

Successful fundraising to modernize science labs sparks effort to upgrade western section of the Suter Science Center

Eastern Mennonite University has exceeded by nearly $600,000 its $7 million goal to modernize the laboratory section of the 1960s-era Suter Science Center, said vice president for advancement Kirk Shisler in an announcement to the campus community on Jan. 17, 2014.

Renovation of the 45-year-old science laboratories in the eastern wing of the Suter Science Center will begin by May 1, he added.

“We are immensely thankful for how broadly people participated in this campaign,” said Shisler, crediting more than 460 alumni, friends of EMU, and foundations for their generous donations. “Supporters have made possible a major transformation of our well-worn labs into high tech, state-of-the-art science space.”

Shisler said an anonymous challenge gift of $500,000 became available when the campaign reached the $6.8 million threshold, catapulting total commitments to $7.3 million by early December 2013. “Momentum toward the $7 million goal accelerated in October and November as alumni and donors sensed that the goal was within reach, and, once achieved, would enable renovation to begin one year earlier than originally planned.”

With $581,000 now committed above the original $7 million goal, university leaders say they feel motivated to seek funds to renovate the western wing of Suter Science Center, which was not included in the $7 million renovation plan but was always part of the long-term plan for upgrading Suter.

Like the eastern wing, the western wing needs an upgraded climate-control system, improved sprinkler system, and modernized classrooms and lecture areas, including a facelift for the iconic S-106 lecture hall (the largest on campus, basically unchanged since the 1960s).

Preliminary estimates for renovating Suter’s western wing show that it will cost about a third as much – about $2.6 million – as will be spent on renovating the eastern laboratory area.

EMU unveiled a comprehensive plan for an entirely new science center in the summer of 2008, just as a number of America’s largest financial institutions failed, marking the trough of the Great Recession. In the face of a weak economy affecting EMU’s supporters, President Loren Swartzendruber said EMU needed to scale back its vision to that which its students absolutely required to prepare them for healthcare and science careers – up-to-date laboratories.

Today, however, Swartzendruber feels optimistic, given the exceptional success of the $7 million campaign to renovate the laboratories. “I believe our donors have shown us that now we can finish fixing up the Suter Science Center,” he said.

Shisler said the $581,000 raised beyond the $7 million goal for the laboratory wing will be applied toward the western wing renovation. In his campus-wide announcement, he expressed a “very special thanks” to the 87 faculty and staff members who have contributed $216,000 to the effort.

“In addition to what has already been given, we are in conversation with 50 to 60 alumni and donors who have been seriously considering gifts to this campaign,” said Shisler. “Also, EMU students are planning their own campaign to support this project. Thus, our intention is to build on the current momentum to move past installing the state-of-the-art laboratories and continue through completing the renovation of the Suter Science Center over the next few years.”

EMU officials anticipate starting laboratory-wing renovations by this May and finishing them by Dec. 1, 2015. Then – if donors step up as expected – the final renovations will begin in 2016, said Shisler, and be finished in time for EMU’s big 100th birthday celebration in 2017-18.