Big-dollar donations help to reshape university facilities, services and support for Region business


Kayla Vasilko

The Founders Day celebration in Westville was a moment to recognize how much PNW has evolved in the last five years, since Pur- due Calumet merged with Purdue North Central. Big-dollar donations are influencing the university’s evolution.

A $3 million-dollar gift from PNW alumnus David Roberts and his wife is the latest big donation landed by the university.

The funds will be used to create the Roberts Impact Lab, a workspace for entrepreneurship, innovation and education collaboration. 

The lab is the latest facility made possible by Roberts’ donations. In 2020, the university opened the multi-million-dollar David Roberts Center for Innovation and Design, a 4,500-square-foot facility to encourage manufacturing innovation.

“The Roberts donation was matched by the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) grant making this facility possible for PNW,” said Dean Niaz Latif from College of Technology. 

“Since the unification of our campuses, many people from the surrounding communities have seen the positive impact that PNW, its students and alumni are doing and … have made donations towards scholarships and educational advancements at PNW,” said Jamie Manahan, executive director of Development.  

The largest gift PNW has received was made by the Gabis Family, who donated the 300 acre TallTree Arboretum to PNW. The arboretum, valued at $12 million, was renamed Gabis Arboretum after the donation. 

 “When we reached out to Chancellor Keon, he was very excited to bring TallTree to PNW,” said Stephanie Blackstock, the arboretum’s executive director.

The Gabis Arboretum, located in Valparaiso, serves as both a nature preserve a laboratory to study nature. PNW has started to integrate the arboretum into its curriculum. For example, some Biology classes meet at the arboretum to study foliage. 

Big donations can be game-changing to PNW, according to Kris Falzone, vice chancellor for Marketing and Communications.

Consider PNW’s newest building, the Nils K. Nelson Bioscience Innovation building on the Hammond campus, which was made possible thanks to an $8 million dollar gift from the estate of Nils Nelson, a former PNW Chemistry professor. The funds were earmarked for the building and scholarships.

 “We were not expecting a gift from him,” said Manhan. “He was a very simple man with a very humble lifestyle. We are grateful for his thoughtfulness.” 

The funding made possible the construction of a state-of-the-art building.

“The leadership team and faculty share work space at the Nelson building to allow more space for labs and teaching purposes,” said Manahan. 

Nursing simulation labs there mimic a real hospital setting, which better aids in the preparation and learning of the future of nurses.  

Plans are still underway for the Impact Labs, but the focus is on making a difference.

“Unlike a traditional incubator, which is typically limited to developing new concepts and bringing them to market, the Impact Lab will also work with existing businesses on ‘intrapreneurship,’ allowing them to interact more closely with experts and entrepreneurs in an environment free of internal constraints,” said Matthew Wells, director of External Engagement and Partnerships.

For donors who make big-dollar gifts to PNW, the goal is to produce lasting change.

“The idea of creating products and developing people that will ‘Ignite the Region’ was the major driving force in our decision,” Roberts said of his donation. “I began my work career in Northwest Indiana 50 years ago and at that time, the region was a manufacturing powerhouse. Hopefully the Impact Lab will help it return to its former stature.”