In September 2014, the University of Kentucky announced the largest gift in its history — $20 million from trustee Bill Gatton to help build a new student center.
On Thursday, UK announced its new biggest gift ever: $23 million from alumnus Tom Lewis and his wife, Jan, to create an honors college for UK's most intellectually inspired students.
"This gift, by a remarkable person and leader so committed to his alma mater and to education, reflects our mission to place the success of students first in everything that we do," President Eli Capilouto said. "Tom Lewis is investing in, and helping enhance, a vision we have to be the finest residential, public research university in America."
The college will be in a residence hall to be built across from William T. Young Library, and the money will be used to hire a dean and eight to 10 faculty and staff, and to provide programming.
Lewis, a native of Lexington and a 1971 engineering graduate of UK, is a seventh-generation Kentuckian, UK officials said. He was a 1967 graduate of Bryan Station High School in Lexington. After graduating from UK, Lewis earned a master's degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He then went into the home construction business in Arizona, where he started T.W. Lewis Co. He lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz.
"I have a strong belief in the value of education and helping young people become the best they can be," Lewis said. "This gift is our way of helping University of Kentucky honors students reach their full potential as leaders who will create, shape and influence people, ideas and discoveries for this and generations yet to come."
At the Thursday news conference, Lewis said he was inspired by the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University in Phoenix, near where he lives.
At Barrett, he said, he has seen that attracting the best and brightest students to stay in-state for college helps them remain afterward, and they "contribute back to the growth and prosperity of the entire state."
Although Lewis has spent the majority of his life outside Kentucky, he made it clear that it remains close to his heart. He mentioned that all 16 of his great-grandparents lived here.
"When I think about this honors college, I really think about honoring the history of our family in Kentucky," he said.
Lewis has already set up scholarships for students from Fayette County and some Eastern Kentucky counties.
UK has a long-established honors program, which provides enrichment classes. Provost Tim Tracy said elevating the program to a college "allows us to bring together all our resources. The students will live together and learn together.
"This will provide a very enhanced and enriched experience that allows them to gain an education they might not get otherwise."
The plan for the college must go before the University Senate for approval.
The college will not grant degrees, and its faculty will be non-tenure track, Tracy said, because "it's a residential college, not an academic college." Those faculty will teach courses such as life skills and organizational techniques.
For example, an honors student could major and get a degree in engineering but would be required to take 24 hours in honors classes, which would be taught by full-time faculty.
Some proposed classes for first-year students include "Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe," "Science, Ethics and Society," and "The Science, Public Policy, Law and Ethics of Drug Development and Human Health."
Lewis Honors College will have about 2,000 students when it opens in fall 2016 or 2017, Tracy said. Students will be chosen based on grades, test scores and essays.
UK has committed $8.5 million a year for scholarships for honors students, Tracy said. That money is not included in the $23 million gift.
Ben Withers, associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of undergraduate studies, said that on a national level, honors colleges signal a dedication to the highest academic achievement.
"It is a highly visible symbol of the institution's commitment to provide rigorous and challenging academic environment in all its undergraduate programs, in all colleges and majors," he said. "The difference with honors is that the approach seeks to pull together students and faculty across campus who wish to explore interdisciplinary connections, questions and approaches."
Withers said honors colleges should be seen as "serving all colleges but belonging to none."
"The central mission should be to help talented, motivated students make the most of their UK experience, fostering work across any and all colleges as well as within," he said.
Toluwalope Odukoya, a UK honors graduate now in medical school, said the honors experience is one in which intellectual discourse and exploration are expected for students who want to question and learn. He thanked the Lewises, saying the new space would "cultivate an amazing learning environment."
"It's not about elitism," Odukoya said. "It's about intentionality."