$1.25M Eck Gift Funds SEA Change Initiative for UM Students, Rankin Hall Renovations

Oct. 4, 2019

MISSOULA – Longtime University of Montana supporters Dennis and Gretchen Eck are once again enhancing infrastructure and student learning at UM. This time they have pledged $1.25 million to support the S.E.A. Change Initiative for UM Students, a new program that prepares women across disciplines to become next-generation leaders whose contributions will influence broad societal change.

The Ecks already have gifted funds to support the program’s first year.

“This extraordinary gift from two of our most generous supporters recognizes UM’s legacy of strong, bold women and will allow us to honor that legacy as we invest in programs that make good on our promise to create a more equitable society,” said UM President Seth Bodnar.

UM launched its broader S.E.A. Change Initiative – which stands for “Safe. Empowered. Accelerated.” – in spring 2019 to amplify its efforts to foster a safe environment for women that uniquely empowers all women to reach their full potential and accelerate them into careers of impact.

The Eck gift makes possible the related S.E.A. Change Initiative for UM Students, a program that will provide women students on campus with mentorship, research, entrepreneurship and leadership opportunities and coursework. The initiative also provides cohorts of undergraduate women with preparation to become supervised mentors to middle school and high school girls and young women, encouraging them to see themselves as impactful leaders.

“We have local, national and global work yet to do to ensure that society more fully benefits from the contributions of women,” Dennis Eck said. “This is not just a women’s issue. This is a societal issue, and the S.E.A. Change Initiative for UM Students is our way of saying that UM will be leaders for creating culture change.”

A native of Wolf Point and the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Eck earned his degree at UM in history and political science. Gretchen was raised in Butte and also attended UM.

The gift from Dennis and Gretchen Eck will provide $750,000 over three years to support the initiative in a variety of ways, including the creation of new scholarships and internship opportunities. In addition, their gift includes $500,000 designated to seed renovation of Jeannette Rankin Hall, which will serve as the future home of the initiative, as well as other existing University programs.

While nationally an increased awareness of and advocacy for gender equality is promising, the number of women in senior leadership positions remains vastly disproportionate. Statistics show women make up 51% of the U.S. population and earn more than 57% of undergraduate degrees nationally, but these numbers do not correlate with earnings and representation in leadership roles.

U.S. Congress is only 24% female. Women make up 47% of the workforce, but only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Nationally, women have earned the majority of doctorate degrees for eight consecutive years, yet only 32% of full professors are women. The S.E.A. Change Initiative for UM Students seeks to address these statistics by seeding change further upstream.

While many institutions around the country provide single courses or one-time experiences targeted at women college students in individual fields, the S.E.A. Change Initiative for UM Students will provide coordinated programming across student experiences and disciplines. The initiative will serve as a model in influencing, empowering and accelerating careers of women students from across disciplines, including the humanities, the arts and the STEM fields.

Montana is the ideal place to launch such an effort. It builds on a long history of strong Montana women who persisted in the face of societal, physical and psychological challenges – like Jeannette Rankin, who graduated from UM in 1902 and became the first woman elected to Congress, and Elouise Cobell, a champion of Native American rights.

“This new program is an emphatic reminder that UM is an institution committed to equity for all,” said Kelly Webster, who leads the S.E.A. Change effort at UM as chief of staff in the Office of the President. “In the tradition of impressive Montana women who have come before, many at UM have performed this vital work for decades, and these new resources will allow us enhance our reach and impact.

“Real change requires persistent effort, and UM faculty, staff and students have long been generating meaningful change,” she said. “This gift will allow us to magnify and build upon their efforts.”

Institutionally, UM is committed to building a safe and empowering campus for all women through an array of programs, including its Women’s Leadership Initiative. In conjunction with the introduction of its S.E.A. Change Initiative in spring 2019, the University relaunched the cohort-based program for faculty and staff that focuses on leadership training and network building to establish a culture of support for women’s leadership.  

As faithful UM donors since 1993, the Ecks have committed more than $8.3 million to the renovation of UM’s Liberal Arts Building in the past five years. UM has named the southern classroom wing of the building the Dennis and Gretchen Eck Hall in their honor. Their gift has supported classroom renovation, enhanced technology, upgraded infrastructure, a new building entrance and a renovated 120-seat auditorium inside the building.

The couple was selected as the recipients of the 2019 Neil S. Bucklew Presidential Service Award. On Oct. 4, Dennis will receive a 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award from the UM Alumni Association.

This gift is part of Campaign Montana, a comprehensive, seven-year fundraising campaign that is inspiring $400 million in philanthropic giving to UM through 2020. Donors will help achieve UM’s vision of a university that puts student success at the forefront, driving excellence and innovation in teaching, research and learning. The campaign is managed by the UM Foundation, with more information on the Campaign Montana site.