UF institute gets $1.2 million gift from company


Published: Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 28, 2006 at 10:36 p.m.
With hurricane deluges, ocean borders and more than its fair share of rivers and streams, the state of Florida appears a place with water, water everywhere. But looks can be deceiving, according to organizers of the University of Florida's fledgling Water Institute.
Officially formed in 2005, with the stated goal of addressing water shortage and other water-related issues, the institute received a major financial boost Tuesday. Progress Energy, a North Carolina-based company, announced that it will give a $1.2 million endowment to the institute. With state matching funds of $900,000, the endowed gift will translate into about $104,400 a year for the institute. The donation is the largest single gift Progress Energy, formed in 2000, has ever made. It also comprises the biggest single chunk of funding the institute has ever received, convincing organizers that an idea some 12 years in the making may finally become a reality.
"(The institute) addresses a significant problem for the state of Florida and our nation," UF President Bernie Machen said at a Tuesday news conference held at Emerson Alumni Hall.
The water institute, an idea generated by the more than 200 faculty who work on water issues at UF, is designed to address a perplexing problem posed by limited natural resources. Floridians use some 8.2 billion gallons of water a day, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. With a booming population, increasing by some 1,000 people each day, UF researchers say Florida will have to develop new methods to preserve its water supply.
UF is in negotiations with a candidate to direct the institute, Machen said, and may close the deal within the next two weeks. Once the director is in place, the institute will bring together researchers from fields as diverse as law and engineering, addressing what some say has been a historically fractured area of research. Though more than 30 departments and schools conduct water-related research, there's been little conversation among them at UF, said Wendy Graham, chair of the institute's faculty launch team.
"They're all working in their own little arena," said Graham, who is a candidate for the director's post.
In addition to the Progress Energy gift, UF is providing seed money of $400,000 a year over three years.
Progress Energy, which has a hub in St. Petersburg, is being called the "founding sponsor" of the institute. When UF hosts annual summits on water issues, the company's name will be prominently featured in association with the event.
Bob McGehee, chairman and chief executive officer of Progress Energy, said the company hopes to benefit from UF's research but won't dictate the direction of it.
"We're not looking for a particular answer," he said. "... This is more of a philanthropic issue."
Giving a corporate sponsor "founding" status is a rarity at UF. A retail program at UF, sponsored by J.C. Penney, may be the only similar arrangement, said Paul Robell, vice president for development and alumni affairs.
"This is fairly unusual, particularly at this level," Robell said.
Though thankful for the funding, Graham acknowledged that the unusual arrangement had raised some concerns among faculty. Some have suggested corporate sponsorship of an academic endeavour like water conservation research might create a "perception" problem, Graham said.
"So far, Progress Energy has been very hands off," she said.
The company, which supplies all of UF's energy, has an interest in insuring a steady water supply in Florida, McGehee said. On a daily basis, Progress Energy's Crystal River operations require 100 million gallons of water, he said.
"We have to be a good steward of our natural resources," McGehee said.

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