Dennis Eck, a University of Montana graduate, was taking a stroll across campus one day a few years ago and decided to pop into the Liberal Arts building.
After a long career as a successful businessman, including becoming director of Ulta Salon, Cosmetics and Fragrance Inc., a prosperous beauty supply company, Eck wanted to see how much things had changed.
“I felt like I was walking back in time 50 years,” he recalled. “Nothing had changed. Nothing had been modernized.”
So Eck decided to do something about it, something that he says “could serve as a proof of concept for upgrading the university’s facilities without changing its characteristic beauty.”
In the past two years, he and his wife Gretchen have contributed nearly $4 million toward the renovations to the LA Building. On Friday, UM President Royce Engstrom announced that their most recent pledge of $2.6 million will help pay for creating a new central entrance to the building off of the Oval, enhanced technology in the building’s 120-seat auditorium, remodeled office spaces and designs for much-needed student gathering spaces.
The donations the Ecks already have made have paid for the remodeling of six classrooms as part of a “technology corridor” in the building. The “smart” classrooms have advanced audio/visual resources such as a dual-purpose whiteboard “skyfold” wall and an 80-inch monitor and wireless input systems to help facilitate lectures.
Eck, who grew up in Wolf Point on the Assinaboine Reservation, hopes that the technology will allow experts on Australian aboriginal culture to talk with Native American studies classes and vice-versa.
Engstrom said nearly 7,000 students take classes in the LA building every week, and the College of Humanities and Sciences fulfills approximately 80 percent of all general education requirements for the university.
“Any improvement to this building dramatically affects the lives of students,” Engstrom said. “We are grateful for generous visionaries like Dennis and Gretchen Eck, who recognize the value of an education that builds a broad foundation across disciplines. The improvements being made to the Liberal Arts building will be integral to equipping our students with the tools to succeed in the global 21st century.”
The money from the Ecks also will fund the development of an official master plan to guide the college’s facility upgrades, which have been lauded by professors.
“Using the technology of LA 304 allows me to present three to four different pieces of information simultaneously,” said Barbara Weinlich, a visiting associate professor of classics. “Essentially, it provides me a platform for making various thinking dispositions visible. This new learning environment not only meets the expectation of the digital generation but also facilitates the deepening of each student’s understanding of the course content.”
The announcement on Friday was made in the Aidan K. Thompson classroom, which was named after one of the Eck’s grandchildren. Eck said the point of naming all the new classrooms after their grandchildren was to drive home the notion that if people are able to become financially successful, then it’s time to give back in some way.
Eck said his business career has taught him that technology is an equalizer.
“Because technology is a cost-effective way of transmitting information, data and learning, it removes barriers without decreasing value,” he said. “In a university setting, that value is passing knowledge from a professor to a student. If the technology in the Liberal Arts building allows that to happen more efficiently, then we’ve accomplished a big part of making education affordable and available in the long term.”
Engstrom said the university will ask for $6.3 million in state funding for critical infrastructure upgrades, and that the Ecks have pledged to match at least a portion of that in the future.