Sacramento State will honor the immigrant who made the largest single gift in the University’s 71-year history by putting his name on a building under construction near the American River. The Ernest E. Tschannen Science Complex is the first donor-named academic building on campus.
Tschannen’s $9 million gift was made public Friday, Feb. 16 – his 93rd birthday – during a news conference at Riverview Hall, the new student residence, attended by 150 students, faculty, staff, and friends of the University.
Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen introduced Tschannen (pronounced shannon) and presented him with a chocolate – his favorite flavor – cake resembling the architecture of the Science Complex, complete with its domed planetarium.
"Ernest believes in Sac State," Nelsen said. "He believes in our students. He believes that we can make this nation stronger."
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Among the dignitaries in attendance was Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who called the event a "historical and happy occasion.
"It's easy to overuse the word 'hero,' but we are confident that we have a hero in our midst," the mayor said before presenting Tschannen with a key to the city of Sacramento.
The announcement comes just three months after Sleep Train founder Dale Carlsen, '84 (Business Administration), and his wife, Katie, gave a then-record $6 million to establish an entrepreneurship center on campus.
The gift ceremony was staged Friday, Feb. 16, in Riverview Hall.
“And now, Ernest’s generous gift starts to speak of momentum,” says Al Frisone, vice president for University Advancement. “Our friends and alumni are inspired by the leadership and trajectory of the University resulting in an unprecedented investment in our students and academic initiatives. Sac State truly is ‘On the Rise.’ ”
California State University (CSU) committed $71 million for Sacramento State to build the state-of-the-art Science Complex that will open for classes in Fall 2019 bearing Tschannen's name. Sacramento State committed $20 million to complete the project and seeks to continue toward that goal through more naming opportunities: planetarium ($5 million), rooftop observatory ($2.5 million), living-laboratory plaza ($2 million), green terrace ($1 million), and two 120-seat lecture halls ($500,000 each).
The relatively uncommon coupling of a planetarium and observatory is expected to make the Science Complex a regional attraction.The planetarium, a resource for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, is expected to engage 15,000 schoolchildren and members of the general public annually. In the complex's modern labs, Sacramento State students and faculty from the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics will do research that addresses real-world issues, such as autism, HIV prevention, and pesticide resistence. Ninety percent of Sacramento State’s students will have classes in the Science Complex, regardless of their major.
Tschannen says he hopes his $9 million gift – the first major private contribution to the building – will inspire others to give.
“I think it’s a fantastic investment, this science building,” he says. “It will help for generations to come. The students will greatly benefit and get a much better education, and more industry is going to move to Sacramento because we will have better-educated people here. It’s going to be a very good thing to have that science building here.”
Tschannen, a native of Switzerland who has a star in the Milky Way named for him, amassed much of his wealth in U.S. real-estate investments – he owns close to 30 apartment complexes across the country – and is giving the majority of his estate to causes in his adopted country. His first gift to Sacramento State came in 2015 when he donated $750,000 to the “Power of 1,000 Hornets” campaign to finance a campus events center.
Since then, he and Nelsen have become close friends and talk often.
“Ernest is emotional about the Science Complex in that this is about America for him,” Nelsen says. “This is about him giving back to America, to the students. And having been adopted by this country and being to be able to make the money he’s made here, he wants to give back.”
In 2016, Tschannen donated $38.5 million to the UC Davis Eye Center and Center for Vision Science to help find a cure for all eye diseases. The gift landed him in the No. 44 spot on Forbes’ list of America’s Top 50 Givers for 2016. Among his other philanthropic causes are the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services and the Scottish Rite Childhood Language Center.
Kevin Johnson, when he was mayor, declared Feb. 16 “Ernest Tschannen Day” in Sacramento.
Tschannen is an ardent outdoorsman who, even in his 90s, continues to bike, kayak, and cross-country ski, and he regularly walks alongside the American River, one of his favorite places. He said he’s pleased that the river, a stone’s throw from the new Science Complex, is a research lab for the hundreds of Sac State biological sciences students participating in the SIRIUS (Sustainable Interdisciplinary Research to Inspire Undergraduate Success) Project.
He also gave $500,000 to the American River Parkway Foundation and $2 million for improvements to a section of the American River Bike Trail.
Tschannen was born in 1925 in Aarwangen, Switzerland. As a teenager, he delivered bread to make spending money, and during World War II, he served as a guard along the Swiss border. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering in Switzerland and is fluent in German, French, and Spanish, as well as English. He has dual Swiss-American citizenship.
In the 1950s, he left his homeland for Canada but soon made his way to Detroit, and then Minneapolis, where he designed flour mills for a Swiss-owned engineering company. He began purchasing apartment complexes as investment properties and eventually chose to manage his real-estate portfolio full time.
Tschannen moved to the Sacramento area in the mid-1950s.
“I started buying more buildings, and I finally didn’t have time for engineering,” he says. “I was too busy with looking at buildings and fixing up buildings. I did all of the repairs myself. I came with nothing to this country and just built it up. I have a nice little estate going, and that’s why I’m able to help Sac State build this science building.”
He’s anticipating the day he sees his name emblazoned on three sides of the Ernest E. Tschannen Science Complex.
“That’s going to be fantastic,” he says. “I will take pictures of it and show it to my friends in Switzerland. I think it’s a fantastic building. It’s going to be good for Sac State. It’s a great investment. I’m really happy about what you’re doing here. I can’t think of anything better.” – Dixie Reid