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ACU announces $25 million gift, first named college in its rise as a national research university


Kay Onstead

A Houston family’s long legacy of philanthropy and service to Abilene Christian University culminated in a $25 million gift announced this week from Kay Onstead. Her generosity marks the fifth largest single donation in the university’s history, and Kay and her late husband, Robert, have given more than $59 million to Abilene Christian over their lifetime.

To honor the Onstead family’s history of advancing excellence in Christian higher education, ACU will name one of its newest colleges in their honor – the Robert and Kay Onstead College of Science and Engineering, the first named college in ACU’s history.  

“The Onstead family’s immense generosity has already reshaped the campus of Abilene Christian University and enhanced the experiences of thousands of students – myself included,” said Dr. Phil Schubert, ACU president. “This monumental new endowment propels us toward a bold vision for ACU’s rise as a national research university. As we continue our pursuit of excellence, we remember that every blessing we enjoy is evidence of God’s provision. The Onstead family has exemplified the convergence of faith and excellence and caused all of us to think more courageously about how God is calling us to be world-changers.”

Kay’s gift establishes an endowment that will help support the growth and success of the college for years to come. Funding priorities include enhancing student success through scholarships; support for the dean of the college; recruiting, retaining and rewarding exemplary faculty; and developing a next-level research engine. The gift also propels ACU past the $250 million Higher Ground comprehensive campaign goal, with two years still remaining in the campaign timeline.

Generous Giving and a Lifetime Legacy


Robert and Kay Onstead

With the addition of this gift, Robert and Kay have provided more than $59 million to ACU, allowing for world class facilities, over 1,000 scholarships through one of ACU’s largest scholarship endowments, and programs of distinction that have propelled ACU’s rise as a national university. 

Neither Kay, nor her late husband, Robert, attended ACU, but early in their marriage, the couple met a group of ACU alumni at their church in Houston and were so impressed they began planning for their children to attend. Three of the Onsteads’ children did attend ACU, and Kay and Robert began a tradition of giving generously of their time and resources to support ACU’s mission. Since that time, the legacy continues with five grandchildren also having graduated from ACU so far.

“Bob and I were so impressed with the ACU graduates we met early in our marriage – we knew it must be a special place. Eventually, our own children attended ACU, where they made lifelong connections and built a strong foundation for their future,” Kay said. “My hope is that this gift, honoring Bob’s legacy, will transform the lives of students for decades to come. We love ACU!”

Robert served as a trustee of ACU from 1978 until his passing in 2004. He and Kay are the namesakes of the Robert and Kay Onstead Distinguished Chair of Biblical Studies and the Onstead Science Center, and they established the Kay and Bob Onstead Ministers Progeny Endowed Scholarship and the Onstead Opportunity Endowed Scholarship. Robert was also instrumental in raising funds for the construction of the Onstead-Packer Biblical Studies Building and the Mabee Business Building. ​​A well-known and respected Houston businessman, Robert  founded Randalls Food Markets Inc. and served as CEO and chairman for more than 30 years. His civic involvement – including serving as chairman of the Houston Economic Development Council, the Greater Houston Partnership, the Better Business Bureau of Houston and the Board of Visitors of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center – is legendary.

A Solid Foundation and a Promising Future

Beginning with the 2023-24 academic year, the new Onstead College of Science and Engineering will bring together the departments of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biology, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Engineering and Physics, and Mathematics. Dr. Charla Miertschin will be the inaugural dean of the OCSE, beginning work Aug. 1. The college will work collaboratively with the Center for Pre-Health Professions, which provides academic and co-curricular programs for students pursuing preparation for careers in health professions.

“We’re entering a period of rapid acceleration of ACU’s vision and growth in the sciences and engineering – from the strength of our faculty, the quality of our students and our expanded academic offerings, to the growing reputation of our research and the increased recognition ACU is receiving because of it,” said Dr. Susan Lewis, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “This gift from Kay Onstead will accelerate the contributions ACU faculty, students and graduates can make to a wide array of real-world issues, including the development of clean, safe energy sources, the stewardship of sustainable agricultural and environmental systems throughout the world, research to identify new methods of diagnosing and treating disease, and so much more.”


Kay Onstead and several of her grandchildren and great grandchildren at the opening of the Onstead Science Center

The 45 faculty members in the five departments forming the new college currently serve 488 undergraduate students. These departments also provide a substantial service component through general education courses required for all ACU undergraduate students. Selected programs in the Department of Engineering and Physics and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry are accredited by ABET and the American Chemical Society, respectively.

Physics faculty have a 40-year history of research in national labs and have created a tradition of incorporating undergraduate students into their research. This has grown into the Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing Laboratory (NEXT Lab), which involves faculty and students from multiple OCSE departments. With the addition of the Dillard Science and Engineering Research Center, the NEXT Lab will have the facilities necessary to complete work funded by a $30.5 million sponsored research agreement with Natura Resources in collaboration with three other universities possessing extensive experience in physics, chemistry and engineering. The Onstead gift establishes a significant, perpetual funding source for the college, creating crucial momentum to help launch and perpetuate one of the most significant academic realignments in ACU’s history.

ACU’s vision for the new college includes:

  • Enhancing the university’s focus on science and engineering by joining together five existing departments.
  • Providing excellent undergraduate education in life and physical sciences for students in science, engineering, and mathematics programs, and through the general education program, which delivers at least nine credit hours from the college for all ACU undergraduates.
  • Growing and capitalizing on the demand for programs related to the disciplines of the college, delivering innovative programs that enrich students’ lives and enable them to explore and prepare for related careers.
  • Enhancing the NEXT Lab as a center of ACU’s funded research and investment of university resources into new facilities, and establishing its faculty and students as international leaders in partnerships with other scholars and government.
  • Exploring new opportunities for graduate education among strong disciplines where none currently exist.
  • Preparing undergraduate students for lives of Christian service and leadership, and supporting and preparing them to pursue graduate and professional school elsewhere, while continuing to grow ACU’s graduate programs and, potentially, a medical school.

Onstead College of Science and Engineering departments are housed in four recently constructed or renovated academic buildings:

  • Engineering and Physics Laboratories at Bennett Gymnasium opened in August 2015.
  • Halbert-Walling Research Center, a 54,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2017, serves as the home for the Department of Biology, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the Center for Pre-Health Professions.
  • Dillard Science and Engineering Research Center is currently under construction. This 28,000-square-foot facility will house ACU’s NEXT Lab and support research in physics, chemistry and many different disciplines of engineering.
  • Onstead Science Center was launched in 2018 as a result of a $10 million investment by Kay Onstead. The center – now home to the departments of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Engineering and Physics, and Mathematics – is filled with collaboration and consultation spaces and larger, flexible modern labs and classrooms to accommodate ACU’s growing science programs. In the updated college structure, the Onstead Science Center will also house the dean’s suite and serve as the hub for the new college.

— Wendy Kilmer

July 6, 2023

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