Alumni Couple’s Latest $4M Gift Includes Systemwide Teaching Excellence Awards

UMass Lowell Image
Rob ’84 and Donna ’85, ’91 Manning get a standing ovation from Gov. Charlie Baker during last week’s announcement of their $4 million gift to the university at the Saab Center.

By Ed Brennen

Whenever Rob and Donna Manning drive down Route 110 to visit their alma mater, the emotion builds. Turning onto University Avenue, they say a sense of pride hits them as they look out at University Crossing, the Mark and Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center and, of course, the future home of the eponymous Robert J. Manning School of Business, the $40 million Pulichino Tong Business Building.

The Mannings have played an instrumental role in the 21st century evolution of UMass Lowell. With their most recent gift of $4 million, announced at a Saab Center ceremony attended by Gov. Charlie Baker on Jan. 13, the alumni couple has now committed a total of nearly $10 million to the university. Not only have they endowed scholarships for students majoring in nursing and business, they’ve helped fund capital projects that have transformed the campus skyline.

And now they’re adding a new layer, earmarking part of their latest donation to endow the Rob and Donna Manning Teaching Excellence Awards, systemwide honors that will be given annually on each of the five UMass campuses. The awards, which will factor in student reviews and be decided by deans from across the UMass system, will each include a $10,000 check from the Mannings.

“All of these beautiful buildings are wonderful, but they have no heart and soul without faculty,” Manning ’84 said in announcing the awards, which he credited UMass Amherst Executive Vice President James R. Julian Jr. with helping to create. “The faculty is the DNA of the institution. They make the students’ experience what it is.”

And Manning speaks from experience. Today he’s chairman and CEO of MFS Investment Management, a $450 billion global asset manager based in Boston. But were it not for the dedication and diligence of one former math professor in particular, Bernie Shapiro, Manning realizes his career path might have been very different.

Manning recalled how Shapiro, who retired as professor emeritus in 1996, created a computer science minor for business students, which was ahead of its time in the early ’80s. Shapiro insisted that Manning take it. “He literally tackled me in the hall with all the forms,” Manning recalled.

After graduating with a degree in business administration, Manning applied for his first job — as a junk bond analyst at MFS. “I’m sitting in a conference room in downtown Boston with a dozen other kids all from elite schools,” he said. “I was so intimidated. I thought I’d blown $20 on a tie for no reason.”

But when the candidates were asked to program a computer to solve a problem, Manning says he was the only one in the room with the technical know-how to do so. He got the job, and 35 years later he’s running the company.

“Donna and I have many examples of people who touched our lives,” Manning said. “This institution has always been innovative … and (Shapiro) had the vision.”

Besides the Teaching Excellence Awards, the Mannings’ latest commitment will help equip the School of Nursing’s new simulation laboratory in the Health and Social Sciences Building. The lab features medical manikins that can describe ailments to students in multiple languages. Donna Manning ’85, ’91, who has worked as an oncology nurse at Boston Medical Center for nearly 30 years, earned nursing and master’s of business administration degrees from the university.

The donation will also pay for a state-of-the-art trade desk that will serve as the hub of the new Pulichino Tong Business Building’s atrium when it opens in spring 2017.

Combined with a $4 million MassTech grant announced on the same day, the Mannings’ gift will strengthen the university’s North Campus Innovation District, bringing together the expertise of the engineering, science and business programs to benefit students, entrepreneurs and industry partners.

“Once again, UMass Lowell is grateful to Rob and Donna Manning for their generosity and their support for the future of business and nursing education on our campus,” Chancellor Marty Meehan said. “They understand firsthand how a UMass Lowell education positions students for success after graduation and, thanks to their gift, our students will be even more prepared as they enter the job market.”

Manning, who described Meehan as a “hero” for what he has achieved at the university, said nothing compares to that feeling of pride he and his wife feel every time they return to campus.

“Donna and I are just thrilled to be part of the UMass Lowell family,” he said, “and we wanted to make sure that everyone here understands that we have never forgotten where we came from. And we never will.”