Years removed from the classroom, InterTech Group CEO Anita Zucker still describes herself as an educator.
Her lesson plan Thursday was aimed squarely at a diverse group of about 75 Charleston County middle schoolers who are trying to navigate the tricky science, technology, engineering and math track, aka the STEM curriculum.
“I have to tell you, those are critical fields,” Zucker told them during a visit to the Clemson University Restoration Institute campus, where the kids had just toured the Hunley conservation lab and the nearby wind-turbine testing center.
This wasn’t a routine field trip. Zucker and the youngsters were on hand to kick off construction of the Zucker Family Graduate Education Center, which will offer master’s degrees and doctorates in STEM disciplines that aren’t available in the region right now. The $21.5 million expansion on the former Navy base is expected to start enrollment in time for the fall 2016 semester.
“And what really makes me happy about this is it’s going to be here, and it’s going to offer opportunities to people just like you, when you become older, so that you can go and get graduate degrees in engineering, perhaps computer science,” Zucker said.
Her remarks capped more than two years of planning. Zucker and her family pledged $5 million toward the cost of the new center in mid-2012. At that announcement, a commemorative video showed that Jerry and Anita Zucker — he a business-minded scientist, she a schoolteacher — lived in a trailer as a young married couple. When he died of brain cancer in 2008, The InterTech Group Inc. was a global manufacturing conglomerate that remains one of the largest private companies in the country.
In October, Forbes Magazine estimated her net worth at $2.4 billion. Through it all, her passion for education has never wavered.
“I’ve been involved in education since I moved here in 1978,” Zucker said after Thursday’s kickoff event. “In the mid-’90s, I was vice president of education for the chamber of commerce, and we did some surveying of the business community. I’ve known for … almost 20 years that graduate levels of education, especially in engineering and computer science, were missing from this region.”
She said one reason that Clemson’s funding proposal stood out is that the school agreed to collaborate with the College of Charleston, The Citadel, the Medical University and Trident Technical College.
“The way I see it, it’s the best way we can work, when we can all work together,” she said. “I believe in that. I believe in collaboration, and it’s something our family urged to happen.”
Another reason: “They came to me and they’re bringing something our region doesn’t have. It’s really critical. It will answer a huge need.”
The Clemson donation is among several big education-based philanthropic gifts from Zucker. A few motnhs ago, she gave $4 million to the School of Education at The Citadel. Around the same time, she pledged $5 million to the University of Florida, her alma mater, to set up a program to improve early childhood education.
In 2012, she announced a $5 million gift for the University of South Carolina to help launch the Zucker Institute for Aerospace Innovation and an endowed professorship within the McNair Center.
The timing isn’t coincidental, she said.
“Why now? First of all, over the last several years, a lot of the higher-ed funding at the state level has dropped dramatically, OK,” she said. “We as a state dropped dramatically in our investments in higher ed. And I’m the kind of person who just believes that every door can be opened for anyone if you give them the opportunity and access to education.”
The donations also have a botton-line element.
“I’m an employer as well,” said Zucker, whose company opened an aerospace parts plant in North Charleston about two years ago. “I am an educator. However, being an employer, I want to make certain as a state we’re able to meet the needs of those companies that want to locate here. We’ve changed, and it can’t be about the same companies that were here 30 years ago. The world isn’t the same. ... And we can’t meet the need without the educa-tion.”
Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.