As chairman of NC State University’s Board of Trustees, Dr. Jim Owens enjoys a front-row seat to the university’s upward trajectory.
He takes pride in the steady climb in program rankings, rise in student and faculty credentials, expansion of interdisciplinary research, improvement across athletics and innovation in campus facilities.
And the three-degree NC State alumnus believes that — buoyed by Chancellor Randy Woodson’s strong leadership, which attracts other outstanding administrators, deans and faculty members — the university is poised to play an even more influential role. He is confident NC State can prepare the next generation of students to be successful and can help the United States find solutions to global challenges and compete in the world economy.
That faith, paired with a more personal desire to give back to an institution that provided him with a strong foundation, continues to drive considerable philanthropy by Owens and his wife, Katie. A recent $3 million gift to the university pushed the couple’s lifetime giving past $5 million. Their leadership and financial generosity comes at a critical time, as NC State prepares to launch the most ambitious fundraising campaign in its history.
Owens has been generous to many NC State programs over several decades through outright and planned giving. His recent investments include endowing a Caldwell Fellows scholarship in honor, Jim said, of John Caldwell, NC State’s chancellor during his time as a student, and in recognition of the Caldwell program’s inspiring community service and international outlook.
Members of the W.J. Peele Lifetime Giving Society, R. Stanhope Pullen Society and Chancellor’s Circle, as well as NC State Alumni Association lifetime members, the Owenses have committed to helping fund a new building for Jim’s fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha. They continue to increase the Nellie Maude Matthews Owens Scholarship Endowment, named for Jim’s mother. The endowment provides need-based scholarships to several students annually, with an emphasis on supporting scholars from designated counties in northeastern North Carolina, the state’s most economically challenged region.
Owens, a native of that area’s Elizabeth City, received much-appreciated scholarship support himself as an NC State student and recalls struggling at times to work 19 to 20 hours weekly while managing a heavy course load.
Giving back to NC State makes sense, Owens said, because of the “think and do education” he received.
“I look back at the eight years I spent here [at NC State] as really being foundational for the life that I got to lead in the business world afterward,” he said.
Now a Peoria Heights, Illinois, resident, Owens began a 38-year career at Caterpillar Inc. in 1972 as a corporate economist and eventually became chairman and CEO; retired after years of work in places that include Switzerland and Indonesia, he serves on the Boards of Directors of Alcoa, IBM and Morgan Stanley.
Owens had arrived in Raleigh in 1964 as a general engineering major. Widespread job opportunities available in the textile industry, though, pulled him in a different direction. Owens earned a bachelor’s degree in textile technology and worked a few summers in textiles as he pursued his master’s in the same field.
Meanwhile, transitioning to NC State from a small town, he said, “was kind of like going to the World’s Fair. I loved being here. It was a time of tremendous personal growth.” Owens quickly learned to work harder academically. He enjoyed intramural sports, gained leadership skills from serving as an officer in his fraternity, honed his public-speaking abilities while serving as instructor during graduate school and expanded his horizons by meeting friends from other countries.
And he grew more intrigued by the business aspect of his studies.
“More of the industrial engineering operations research, quality control side, but also statistics and economics were a big interest for me,” Owens said. “I considered going to get an MBA. But quite frankly, being a young parent at the time, having a full research grant and research employment opportunity tied into the master’s program kept me at NC State. That was a terrific two years.”
As he earned his master’s, his research and extension experiences helped point him toward earning a doctorate in economics. Solid exposure to both the theoretical and practical sides of that discipline fed his passion. Owens credits NC State for teaching him to think critically, while providing skills in areas such as opening markets.
Establishing a new endowed faculty position in international economics is the next goal for the Owenses, whose generosity extends to the Wolfpack Club and varied campus initiatives. A few years ago, their gift, paired with a gift from the Caterpillar Foundation, started an endowment that supports the Owens Distinguished Professor of Supply Chain Management. Contributions from Owens and Caterpillar have boosted academics, research and outreach in those program areas within Poole College of Management through student scholarships, faculty fellowships and funding for interdisciplinary initiatives. The gifts reflect Owens’ enthusiasm for the United States’, and NC State’s, international leadership role.
Owens has received the Watauga Medal (2006), NC State’s highest nonfaculty honor for significant contributions. Poole College of Management has recognized him as Alumnus of the Year (1999) and Person of the Year (2009) for his volunteer and advocacy efforts, and his accomplishments. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) named him as a 2015 Influential Leader.
Serving on the Board of Trustees since July 2009 has given him greater awareness of NC State’s finances. Private support is critically needed to supplement the approximately 70 percent of an undergraduate education that the State of North Carolina underwrites, he said, and to continue moving NC State from excellent to great.
Owens views philanthropy more personally, too.
“I came from a family of modest means. My parents worked hard and struggled. My mother went to work to help put me through college,” he said. “I think all of us whose lives have been enriched by the experience that we had here, by the foundations that we were able to lay here at NC State, and who want to give back in a very constructive way have an opportunity to think about how this upcoming [university fundraising] campaign can make a big difference.
“I think it is important for our state, for our country and for our young people.”