Former distance learner maintains close ties to SU
May 22, 2012
Even though Nick Donofrio G’71, H’11 earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering from Syracuse University in 1971, he stepped foot on campus only once before his Commencement ceremony. That’s because he was a distance learner, attending classes in Poughkeepsie, New York, while he was employed by IBM.
Poughkeepsie was just one of SU’s off-campus education centers at the time. But regardless of the distance between his classes and campus, the relationship between Donofrio and SU was—and remains—a close one. “I never went to Syracuse. Syracuse came to me,” he says. “Having said that, it never crossed my mind not to feel like an SU graduate.”
While he believes that his whole career at IBM was shaped by the graduate degree he earned at the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, there’s another reason for the affinity Donofrio feels with SU—the University’s emphasis on diversity in education. And it’s that diversity that has been the focus of his generous gifts to SU over the past two decades.
“Almost without exception, all my giving in education is centered on diversity—for women and underrepresented minorities in engineering and the sciences,” he explains. “The balance of the mix, especially in hard-core disciplines like electrical and chemical engineering, just isn’t there. Why wouldn’t I want to improve that balance and ensure that we have diversity of thought?”
With his most recent gift, the Syracuse University trustee is establishing the Donofrio Scholars Program at L.C. Smith. The program will provide scholarships to underrepresented students for SummerStart, a six-week session that helps ensure a smooth transition from high school to college for newly admitted students by giving them an opportunity to become familiar with SU’s academic, social, and cultural life.
Donofrio himself came from a family of modest means, and it wouldn’t have been possible for him to pursue his education without the help of scholarships. In 1964, while studying for his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he joined IBM as a co-op student, working on the memory technology for the legendary IBM System/360 mainframe computing system.
Hired as a full-time IBM employee after receiving his undergraduate degree, he spent the early part of his career as a designer of logic in memory chips. He held numerous technical management positions and, later, executive positions in several product divisions. He led many of IBM’s major development and manufacturing teams, from semiconductor technologies to personal computers to the company’s entire family of servers. From 1997 until his retirement in 2008, he led IBM’s technology and innovation strategies, inspiring its technology team to create a remarkable string of industry-leading breakthroughs.
In recent years, Donofrio has been directing his energies toward advancing education, employment, and career opportunities for underrepresented minorities and women. He served for many years on the boards of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering and INROADS, a nonprofit that trains and develops talented minority youth for professional careers in business and industry.
In 2005, he was appointed by the U.S. Department of Education to serve on the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The 20-member delegation of business and university leaders is charged with developing a new national strategy for post-secondary education that will meet the needs of America’s diverse population while it addresses the economic and workforce needs of the country’s future.
Donofrio’s belief that diversity of thought is the underpinning of innovation in any industry—and crucial to our ability to compete on a global scale—is at the heart of his desire to advance scholarship and create opportunities for people from a range of backgrounds to pursue their educational goals. “Someone was kind enough to help me,” he says. “Why wouldn’t I want to give others—those who don’t have the resources to make it on their own—the same opportunity?”