January 11, 2012

COLLEGE STATION — A decade after making his first million-dollar gift intended to help transform Texas A&M University into a world leader in fundamental physics and astronomy, Houston businessman George P. Mitchell has come full circle in that commitment with a $20 million legacy gift to benefit the namesake institute where it all began.

George P. Mitchell and the George and Cynthia Mitchell Foundation's $20 million legacy gift supports his namesake George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.

Mitchell, a 1940 Texas A&M distinguished petroleum engineering graduate and founder of Mitchell Energy & Development Corp., shaand The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation announced their landmark gift to Texas A&M’s George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy Wednesday (Nov. 14) during a celebratory reception at the institute. The gift, established through the Texas A&M Foundation and payable over a five-year period, will significantly bolster the permanent endowment for the Mitchell Institute, created in 2002 by Mitchell and his late wife, Cynthia Woods Mitchell, with an initial $1 million gift to the university. In addition, it solidifies Mitchell’s position as the university’s most generous donor.

“My grandfather has a long history of supporting his keen interest in physics and astronomy,” said Mitchell Foundation President Katherine Lorenz. “This gift to the Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy provides an authentic legacy consistent with his values and vision. We are thrilled to support the work of some of the top scientists in the world as they explore the universe’s most complex questions.”

The $20 million commitment ranks as the second-largest individual gift in Mitchell family giving history behind the couple’s $35 million pledge in 2005 toward construction of the $82.5 million Mitchell Institute and George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Buildings — the first campus buildings to be financed through a public-private partnership involving substantial donor funds.

“Mr. Mitchell transformed the energy industry in the 20th century,” said Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin, Texas A&M Class of 1971 and a 1970 physics graduate. “Through his support of buildings and programs across campus, he helped transform Texas A&M into a major research university. Now, with his latest landmark gift toward the institute that bears his name, Mr. Mitchell helps secure the place of our astronomy and physics program among the very best in the world into the foreseeable future. We are profoundly grateful.”

Since 2002, the Mitchell Institute has attracted eminent experts (including world-renowned Cambridge University theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking on four separate occasions, each involving sold-out public lecture appearances) to Texas A&M for major conferences and events exploring big-picture issues in many vital areas that encompass its dual chief objectives of fundamental physics and astronomy. In addition to serving as home to theoretical and experimental physicists searching for answers to some of the universe’s biggest puzzles from dark energy and dark matter to supersymmetry and string theory, it also houses the university’s globally respected astronomy program, whose researchers are involved in some of the world’s most significant projects.

Texas A&M owes its participation in one such project, the $700 million Giant Magellan Telescope, to Mitchell, who has committed $33.5 million overall to the next-generation, ground-based wonder scheduled to be completed in Chile by the end of the decade. Those contributions include his lead gift of $3.25 million in 2004 to establish Texas A&M as a founding partner, another $5 million in 2010 and most recently a $25 million gift involving the Mitchell Foundation, half of which was credited to Texas A&M.

Mitchell is greeted by Texas A&M astronomer Kim-Vy Tran, who served as master of ceremonies for the celebration event.

Bolstered by the Mitchell family’s latest generous contribution, Texas A&M officials eagerly anticipate a new era for the Mitchell Institute, which entering its second decade, is properly poised to parlay unprecedented financial support with its growing international research reputation to attract the caliber of faculty and students required for the world-changing projects and discoveries envisioned in the institute’s near future.

“The Mitchell Institute is very well poised to play a unique role in understanding the important interconnection between particle physics and cosmology by bringing together high-energy physicists and astronomers,” said Bhaskar Dutta, professor of physics and astronomy and interim director of the Mitchell Institute. “At Texas A&M, we have been trying for the past five years to develop the vision needed to capitalize on the latest astrophysical observations regarding the precise determination of the content of the universe. This gift will go a long way to contributing to human understanding of the past, present and future of the universe.”

H. Joseph Newton, dean of the Texas A&M College of Science, notes the gift was nearly two years in the making and due in large part to the efforts of Mitchell’s daughter, Sheridan Mitchell Lorenz, whose involvement with Mitchell Institute faculty and Dean’s Office personnel in crafting the institute’s future direction and necessary steps in that regard proved invaluable.

“The tremendous work that went into the Mitchell Institute’s expanded vision has been a long and sustained effort by many people, especially Sheridan Mitchell Lorenz,” Newton said. “She has been instrumental in this effort as well as several past projects to better position the Mitchell Institute and the overall Department of Physics and Astronomy. In this instance, she worked tirelessly with members of the Mitchell Institute and the Texas A&M Science dean’s office to make sure this gift came to fruition.”

Mitchell Lorenz says her father’s lifelong interest in physics and astronomy definitely has been a family affair. While Mitchell long has been intrigued by Hawking’s work and theories, she says her mother’s “hero” was Carl Sagan. Mitchell Lorenz’ own daughter, Katherine Lorenz, has served since January 2011 as president of the Mitchell Foundation. Both women play prominent roles in the family’s philanthropic efforts, which in Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy’s case has resulted in no less than two buildings, 10 academic chairs and professorships, a post-doctoral fellowship in astronomy, and a related lecture series. Overall, the Mitchell family’s generous support of Texas A&M’s programs in fundamental physics and astronomy totals more than $88 million since 2002.

“George Mitchell has always been a visionary,” said Ed Davis, president of the Texas A&M Foundation and Texas A&M Class of 1967. “Fascinated with astronomy as a young man, his vision allowed him to pursue a career that favorably looked into the ground: petroleum engineering. His resolute pursuit of hydraulic fracturing helped him achieve his dream and to potentially return the U.S. to energy independence. He has been reinvesting his success in helping Texas A&M build the finest astronomy and physics program in the world. His generosity will allow many others to be visionary as well, and literally see the stars. George Mitchell is one of Texas A&M’s greatest icons.”

For decades, the Mitchells have been major benefactors of Texas A&M’s marine-oriented branch campus in Galveston. Among other gifts for Texas A&M University at Galveston, he donated the 135 acres where its main campus is located and which carries his father's name. They also provided major funding for Texas A&M’s statistics and petroleum engineering departments and the George P. Mitchell ’40 Outdoor Tennis Center.

For additional information on the Mitchell Institute and related teaching, research and outreach programs, visit physics.tamu.edu.