July 11, 2018

A Multifaceted Gift to Caltech Grows from Gratitude

When asked what makes his alma mater special, Roger Davisson (BS ’65, MS ’66) frames his thoughts with a literary allusion. “Walt Whitman wrote, ‘I contain multitudes,’” he says. “Well, Caltech contains multitudes. The Institute has some of the brightest and best minds, and they gather across disciplines in a way that I don’t think happens elsewhere. For a small school, the amount of stuff that’s going on is truly remarkable.”

His belief in Caltech has inspired him to remain active in the life of the Institute. He holds fond memories of his time as a physics and engineering student, and of the literature, history, and economics classes he took. Those courses made his education more complete and instilled an enduring interest in writing and history that continues to enrich his life.

So when Roger and his wife, Marjorie, decided to build on decades of support for Caltech with a new $3 million endowment pledge to Break Through: The Caltech Campaign, they chose to include discretionary funds to promote research and teaching in the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS).

“The Davissons’ latest endowed investments in our division will sustain our drive toward excellence in research and teaching in profound and lasting ways,” says Jean-Laurent Rosenthal (PhD ’88), Caltech’s Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and holder of the Ronald and Maxine Linde Leadership Chair in HSS. “We are deeply grateful to Roger and Marji for their meaningful contribution to inquiry and instruction in the humanities and the social sciences.”

Other portions of the Davissons’ gift supply scholarships for undergraduates and fellowships for graduate students as well as flexible resources that Caltech’s president can use strategically and quickly.

Firsthand Motivation

Growing up in Pueblo, Colorado, Roger excelled in math and science. He enrolled at Caltech sight unseen, which was typical for students at the time.

Here, the budding engineer had fun on the debate team and the golf squad. He also prized the opportunity to learn from “a host of superb English, history, and economics professors” whose influence has echoed throughout his life. But most of all, Caltech presented the challenge of a lifetime.

“It’s probably the hardest I’ve worked over a four-year period in my whole life, and I had a fairly demanding career,” says Roger, who was a general partner at venture-capital firm Brentwood Associates for 20 years.

A particularly demanding highlight of his undergraduate career was a course taught by Richard Feynman, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics the same year Roger earned his bachelor’s degree. Roger recalls the soon-to-be laureate encouraging students to hang in there.

“He told us one day: ‘You’re in a special environment here. It is tough, but when you leave you’re going to have a huge advantage. Stick it out, and everything is going to seem a lot easier when you graduate.’ And he was right.”

Paying It Forward

Caltech training prepared Roger to launch a successful career. And it all was made possible by donors who funded the scholarships he received.

“Roger was able to leave his home state and go someplace he knew only by reputation, and he had that opportunity because student aid made it affordable for his family,” says Marjorie, a former mathematics teacher. “We feel an obligation to give other students that opportunity.”

Roger adds, “Caltech’s faculty is superb, but a key part of the Institute’s greatness is the extremely high quality of its students, both graduate and undergrad. So financial aid for them is key to keeping Caltech excellent.”

The Davissons’ gift fuels three different funds that directly benefit students.

The couple expanded the Roger and Marjorie Davisson Scholarship fund, which they established in 1993 to support undergraduates. They also created two funds for graduate students: the Roger and Marjorie Davisson Fellowship and the Lance E. Davis Fellowship, both of which received boosts from the Gordon and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match.

Additional funding for the Davis Fellowship came from the Faculty Advisors Recognition Endowment Challenge, established by an anonymous donor. This fellowship—named for the late Lance Davis, a pioneer in studying the economics of past eras and founder of Caltech’s doctoral social science program—will bear a preference for scholars in HSS.

The sense of possibility that comes with supporting students gives the Davissons a thrill.

“At Caltech, students are exposed to all kinds of things that may help them make important breakthroughs and potentially solve some of the world’s biggest problems. We’re pleased to think that we might help someone get there.”
- Marjorie Davisson

Fundamental Trust

Other components of the Davissons’ gift equip Caltech leaders with discretionary resources.

The Davisson Fund for Excellence in Teaching in HSS will provide assets that Rosenthal and his successors as chair can use to pursue top priorities and take hold of emerging opportunities. Similarly, the newly created Davisson Presidential Priorities Fund will give Caltech’s president resources to apply wherever they will have the greatest impact.

These funds are an expression of the Davissons’ trust in Caltech’s vision, according to Roger.

“If you believe in an institution’s fundamental quality—which means its people and its leadership—you should let them decide where your gift will do the most good,” he says. “They have the best understanding of Caltech’s strengths and opportunities, and in the long run, they’re going to create valuable results.”

An Enduring Connection

The Davissons stay close to Caltech in many ways. For more than 25 years, they have been members of the Caltech Associates, a support group for which Roger formerly served as a board member and treasurer. He sits on the HSS chair’s council, which he helped found as inaugural chair. In addition, the Davissons belong to the Torchbearers Legacy Society, and Roger has been active in encouraging others to give to Caltech.

The Orange County residents also return to campus for seminars that offer alumni and friends glimpses of current research.

“Those visits have opened up a lot of areas that I had not thought about or wasn’t aware of,” Marjorie says. “It’s been an enriching experience for me.”

To this day, Roger is astounded by the variety of investigations under way at Caltech.

“I think if everybody could spend a day at Caltech hearing about some of the work that’s going on—as we’ve been able to do—they would marvel at the variety and depth of the research, and the sheer intellectual brilliance of the place,” he says.