Couple give $20 million to U of L

FRANKFORT — The University of Louisville will receive $20 million to explore renewable energy.

The gift from U of L graduate Henry Conn and his wife, Rebecca, will be used to support what will be called the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research and Environmental Stewardship.

Theirs is the largest individual gift to a public university in the state, officials said.

Gov. Steve Beshear, who announced the gift at a news conference Monday, said the research center fits well with his administration's energy plan.

A state renewable energy center was authorized by the General Assembly in 2006, and its work was described in legislation passed in 2008. But the center was not funded and has existed only on paper.

The center will be part of J.B. Speed School of Engineering. But it will be a collaborative effort between all the state's universities, U of L President James Ramsey said. The center will pursue federal grants, including any available from stimulus packages being debated in Congress.

Mickey Wilhelm, dean of the Speed School of Engineering, said the $20 million will go toward attracting new faculty as well as refurbishing current space. The long-term goal will be to build a stand-alone research center, he said.

U of L already is conducting research in renewable energy — such as the development of nano-wires used in the collection of solar technology. Wilhelm said the center will allow that research to come under one umbrella. It will also allow the university to eventually offer advanced degrees and certificates in renewable energy.

A board appointed by the governor will set research priorities. Len Peters, secretary of the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, will chair the board.

Henry Conn is a Louisville native who received bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering and a master of business administration degree from U of L.

He began his career with Ford Motor Co. and now is an adviser to corporations around the world. He and Rebecca Conn, also a Louisville native, live in Atlanta.

Henry Conn called the Speed School of Engineering "the genesis of my success today."

Silicon Valley in California and other leading research areas have one thing in common, he said — top research centers.