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Jacobs challenge creates four endowed chairs in Human Ecology

From left, professors Donald Kenkel, policy analysis and management, and Patrick Stover, nutritional sciences; Alan Mathios, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology; and human development professor Valerie Reyna.

Every day, 91 Americans die of an opioid overdose – from prescription drugs or heroin, federal statistics show.

While this national epidemic seems to be spiraling out of control, Valerie Reyna, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, has been working with other scholars on a federal panel to apply scientifically based strategies to address the crisis.

Reyna's research examines the most vulnerable period for developing addictions and other unhealthy behaviors – adolescence. Her new focus on the mechanisms that may drive addiction will become an easier frontier for her to explore since she has received one of four faculty endowments created through a fundraising challenge for the college.

"This will allow me to innovate more and take risks with my work and feel that I have stable support for that," says Reyna, a neuroscientist who has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine, which appointed the committee on prescription opioid abuse last year.

The endowed professorships were established through a challenge grant initiated by longtime Cornell benefactors Joan Klein Jacobs '54 and Irwin Mark Jacobs '54, founding chairman and CEO emeritus of Qualcomm, as part of a $10 million commitment to the college in 2014. The gift – the largest in the college's history – included $6 million to inspire other donors to create four $3 million faculty endowments that would be matched on a one-to-one basis by the Jacobses. 

"Irwin and I believe strongly in Dean [Alan] Mathios' vision for greater integration of the curriculum, broader collaboration between Human Ecology faculty and their counterparts throughout Cornell, and a new level of impact within and outside of the university," Joan Jacobs says. "Our philanthropy is very focused on improving lives through education and research, and we were delighted in this collaboration to support our alma mater – and my college." 

Three donors responded to the challenge, establishing four new named professorships: Janet K. Lankton '53 and Gordon B. Lankton, M.Eng. '53, former chairman of Nypro, who endowed two positions; Lois M. Tukman '62 and Melvin Tukman, president and director of Tukman Grossman Capital Management; and Lee Cheung ("L.C.") Lau, founder and chairman of EPRO Development Group and a founding member of the Cornell Institute of Fashion and Fiber Innovation.

"The Jacobses' challenge grant afforded us the opportunity to endow a professorship, which was something we hadn't considered," says Lois Tukman, who earned her degree in child development at Cornell. "They made us stretch. The challenge was a brilliant strategy to leverage their gift."

The Tukmans will endow the professorship for Reyna, whose research focuses on healthy decision-making from childhood to adulthood. The Lanktons' gift will support two faculty members in public health and nutrition – Patrick Stover, director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell, and Ross Hammond, a senior fellow in economic studies at The Brookings Institution, who will join the faculty this summer. Lau's donation will fund a professor in fashion and technology who will be hired later this year.

"Endowed professorships to me are the gold standard in philanthropy because they allow us to retain and recruit top faculty, which drives student success, research success and the success of the college," says Mathios, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean. "The college could not have this level of faculty without this type of support."

In addition to the $6 million in matching funds, the Jacobses donated $4 million to endow the Joan K. and Irwin M. Jacobs Professorship in the College of Human Ecology, held by Donald Kenkel, a health economist who studies the regulation and taxation of tobacco products. The Jacobses also funded a fellowship to support a graduate student to work with Kenkel.

Because of the funding, Kenkel said he has been able to expand his research into a new area – the health impact and regulation of electronic cigarettes. "The big advantage is the availability of support to explore new ideas, like electronic cigarettes, without the time delays and other things that happen if the resources from the chair aren't available," he says.