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April 26, 2019

Honoring John Bollinger, endowed chair will take ME department to next level

Written By: Adam Malecek


The experiences John Bollinger (BSME ’57, PhDME ’61) enjoyed as a student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering set him on a path to a distinguished career in which he made a difference in the lives of thousands of engineering students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As a standout professor and mechanical engineering department chair, and later as dean of the College of Engineering, Bollinger was especially passionate about creating opportunities for students to engage in hands-on learning and entrepreneurial activities.

Now, a major new gift to the department in honor of Bollinger will open up even more opportunities for mechanical engineering students to enrich their educations.

Herbert V. Kohler Jr., executive chairman of the Kohler Company, and other donors are endowing the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s chair position with $5 million as a way to pay tribute to Bollinger and elevate the department.

John Bollinger
John Bollinger. Photo: Andy Manis.

It is the largest gift in the department’s history and is one of just three endowed department chair positions in the College of Engineering, all of which have been established in 2019.

“This endowed chair will be a catalyst for many new opportunities benefiting our students and will be instrumental in taking the department to the next level,” says Jaal Ghandhi, the first department chair to hold the John Bollinger Chair of Mechanical Engineering. “It’s a very fitting honor for John, given his long and illustrious career devoted to the college and the department.”

The endowed chair provides flexible funding that Ghandhi says will enable the department to purchase state-of-the-art lab equipment to educate undergraduate and graduate students using the latest technology, akin to what they will encounter in industry.

And while the department currently helps support student travel to various national competitions, Ghandhi is excited that funds from the endowed chair would allow the department to expand its support for student organizations and teams working on ambitious projects.

“There are times when relatively modest amounts of money will give students the tools and ability to be better prepared for competitions,” Ghandhi says. “These competitions are highly valuable learning opportunities for our students, so it’s great to have this flexible funding available to help students get the most out of their experience.”

Ghandhi says the department could create additional opportunities to foster entrepreneurial skills in students through a “maker fund.” Students would be encouraged to pitch their innovative ideas to the department chair and promising ideas would receive startup funds to move them from concept to reality.

In addition to helping support the department chair’s research program while leading the department, the endowed fund will help other faculty kickstart high-risk, high-reward research projects.

For example, it could provide faculty members with some resources to demonstrate that a novel idea shows promise—and that greatly increases their chances of securing external grants to pursue the research.

“Money from this endowed chair offers a way to seed research in the department,” Ghandhi says. “Then if that faculty member’s external grant proposal is really successful, it’s a huge win for the department and the college.”

Bollinger says learning about the endowed chair was a great surprise for him, and he’s excited about the department’s future and the far-reaching impact this gift will have.

“I consider it an honor to have my friends and colleagues decide to remember me in this very meaningful way,” Bollinger says.

Bollinger served as dean of the college from 1981 to 1999, and presided over the $16 million college expansion to Engineering Hall in 1993. During his 18-year tenure as dean, he created a new aesthetic environment for the college campus. He oversaw the creation of well-known landmarks such as the Maquina sculpture and fountain and new building architecture that transformed a group of buildings into an identifiable engineering campus, complete with a main street renamed “Engineering Drive.” Bollinger was also instrumental in planning the Engineering Centers Building and raising the needed funds. Completed in 2002, it was the first new building on the engineering campus in 40 years.

Always committed to providing meaningful learning experiences, Bollinger established a new freshman course in the college that assigned a real-world engineering project from design to final product. In addition to fostering the activities of student organizations, he championed efforts to recruit more women and students from underrepresented minority groups to enter engineering.

He received numerous accolades over his renowned career, and is a fellow of the National Academy of Engineering, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the American Society for Engineering Education.

From 1984 to 2003, Bollinger served on the Kohler Company’s board of directors, where his tenure mirrored a period of expansion with several strategic acquisitions and new markets. His contributions inspired Kohler Jr., to make a $1 million gift to the endowed chair fund in Bollinger’s honor.

“John was a stalwart in driving innovation at Kohler, providing our associates with entrepreneurial freedom and the necessary tools for them to excel,” he says. “In his role as dean, John was influential in helping to match engineering students with Kohler through internships and co-op programs. Many of these individuals became full-time associates, who have contributed to our mission of improving the level of gracious living for those touched by our products and services.”