Pitt engineering school renamed for alumnus giving $41.3 million

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John A. Swanson describes himself as an accidental graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Engineering.

As an employee of Westinghouse Astronuclear Laboratory in the 1960s, he was told he needed a doctoral degree in engineering. So he enrolled at Pitt because it was close by and offered night courses.

That doctoral degree in applied mechanics has proven to be a fortuitous "accident" for Pitt.

The university announced yesterday that Dr. Swanson -- founder of Ansys Inc. in Southpointe, Washington County -- has donated $41.3 million to the university's school of engineering. It represents the largest contribution from an individual in Pitt's 220-year history.

The university has responded to Dr. Swanson's generosity and engineering accomplishments by renaming the school in his honor.

Yesterday, the university unveiled a "John A. Swanson School of Engineering" sign outside Benedum Hall, then celebrated the event with free lunches, ball caps and T-shirts for engineering students. The university also showed a film heralding the engineering school's history in anticipation of an even brighter future.

University Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said the new name is a perfect fit for the school that opened in 1846.

Ansys, which Dr. Swanson founded as Swanson Analysis Systems Inc. in 1970, now has 1,400 employees. He retired in 1999 but still serves as a consultant.

Ansys' computer program helps design products for the aerospace, automotive, biomedical, manufacturing and electronics industries and simulates how products will function in real life. As such, Dr. Swanson is recognized internationally for innovation and expertise in finite-element methods of engineering.

In 2004 he received the American Association of Engineering Societies' John Fritz Medal, recognized as the nation's top honor for engineering. Other medal winners include George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, Alfred Nobel and Alexander Graham Bell.

Dr. Swanson became a university trustee in 2006.

Dr. Nordenberg praised him for his "stirring accomplishments, deep commitment, extreme generosity and unassuming character" and characterized the occasion as the greatest in engineering-school history.

"It's a very happy day for the University of Pittsburgh School of Engineering and because of your generosity, many happy days will follow," he said, predicting the contribution will help boost the program into the top ranks.

The university plans to use the money for student scholarships and fellowships and to create a Swanson chair and other professorships. It also will provide support for the Swanson Institute for Technical Excellence that was created with a previous donation. The money also will be used to renovate and expand Benedum Hall.

Dr. Swanson, now a resident of The Villages, Fla., quoted Andrew Carnegie in explaining why he made the contribution: "He who dies wealthy fails."

He also jokingly inquired whether he can update his resume to say he graduated from a school bearing his name.

"I think the answer is yes," Dr. Nordenberg said. "We are exceedingly fortunate that John Swanson -- who not only is recognized as one of the world's leading engineers but also is one of our most loyal and generous supporters -- has chosen to make an extraordinary investment in the future of engineering education at Pitt."

David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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