Christine Stallmann has been named the University’s chief compliance officer. The position, which will report directly to Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Brett Padgett in the Division of Business, Finance and Administrative Services, is a key component of…
3rd Thonis Endowed Professorship Announced: The Multiplier Effect in Philanthropy
On the drive from his home in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to his alma mater in Syracuse, New York, Michael G. “Mike” Thonis ’72 says he counts rock formations, knows all their geological names and notices “as they suddenly become very dark and very mysterious.” The highly successful business executive, financial advisor, philanthropist and Syracuse University life trustee remains passionate about geology and Earth science—his major as an undergraduate, and the focus of his most recent gift to the Forever Orange Campaign and the Faculty Excellence Program.
Thonis and his wife, Susan, recently gifted $1.34 million to establish the Thonis Family Professorship III of Earth Science. As part of the Faculty Excellence Program, the University contributes an additional $666,000 to the gift amount to fund the professorship. This is their third endowed professorship supporting the geosciences, though each recipient is distinctive in their research and teaching. This latest gift supports the work of Zunli Lu, professor of Earth and environmental sciences, who joined Syracuse University in 2011.
“I think any problem that geochemistry can solve, Zunli can take it on,” says Thonis. He speaks with similar enthusiasm about the work being done by the other endowed professors in the Earth and environmental sciences department. The first Thonis Family endowed professorship currently supports research into “what’s going on way down deep in the Earth” and the second endowed professorship currently “uses geochemistry to understand rainfall, past and future.”
Lu’s work covers a wide range of topics intersecting geology, energy, environment and climate. “I like to use my science as a vehicle for exploring complex interactions among rock, water and life, to the maximum extent across space and time,” says Lu. Last year, Lu and a team of interdisciplinary scientists were awarded a $2 million grant from the Frontier Research in Earth Sciences program of the National Science Foundation to study the causes of mass extinctions and how animals millions of years ago responded to environmental changes. Specifically, Lu looks at the stressors placed on marine animals by changing ocean conditions, such as elevated temperatures and reduced oxygen availability. The research could help predict the impact of climate change on the entire ecosystem that supports animal and human life.
Thonis believes these gifts to advance research and scholarship help boost the overall reputation of the University. His focus on the geosciences may be personal, but his philanthropic goal is broad: “I know there are others out there who are passionate about math or philosophy or creative writing. I hope to propel someone to make a gift in the field of their choice.”
“This series of endowed professorships from Mike’s generosity has driven strong positive feedback in the growth of our faculty and in the reputation of our department,” says Lu.
“The Thonis family’s commitment to academic excellence, demonstrated by their generous support of our faculty, is deeply appreciated,” says College of Arts and Sciences Interim Dean Lois Agnew. “It’s inspiring to see someone parlay their own positive experience as an undergraduate into advancing the careers of countless students and researchers who are making a real difference in the field.”
“Through their continued philanthropic commitment to Syracuse University, Mike and Susie are helping us attract and retain top scholars who drive discovery,” says Chancellor Kent Syverud. “In the field of geology, discovery involves looking back millions of years to help us shape the future for years to come. Similarly, endowments are long-term investments in the future of scholarship that impacts generations to come.”
“The time I’ve spent with Mike and Susie Thonis drives home the value of the student experience within the department and the student-professor relationship in instilling a lifelong passion for both the department and institution,” says Gregory Hoke, chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “As we enter our 150th year as a department, their generosity does so much to cement our future as one of the University’s oldest academic units.”
In addition to his philanthropy, Thonis has generously donated his time and talent. He serves on the Advancement and External Affairs Committee and Finance Committee as a life trustee, and is a tri-chair of the National Campaign Council Executive Committee. He served as a voting trustee from 2008-2021, and was a member of the Boston Regional Council and College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Advisory Board. In 2015, he received the Dritz Trustee of the Year Award, and in 2022, he received the Dritz Life Trustee of the Year Award for outstanding Board service.
After Thonis graduated from Syracuse, he earned an M.S. in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then changed his career trajectory with an MBA from Harvard Business School. He launched a career in endowment management and co-founded Charlesbank Capital Partners, where he remains a senior advisor. With a career devoted to helping others understand what it means to invest in the future, Thonis sees his own philanthropy as a gift to the University and to himself.
“When you give gifts, you begin to feel more like your career matters,” says Thonis, who has gifted more than $5 million to support scholarships and academic excellence in research and teaching at Syracuse University. He says he was inspired by the teachings of Arthur Brooks, Ph.D., a former professor in The Maxwell School, and now Harvard Kennedy School and professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School. Brooks writes about the link between charitable giving and increased happiness and prosperity.
“When people give more money away, they tend to prosper,” Brooks writes. In other words, it’s good for the giver and for society because there’s an economic multiplier effect to philanthropic investments. Applying the same principles, Thonis continues to be a fervent supporter of Syracuse University.
“When you retire in business, it doesn’t mean you’re done contributing,” says Thonis. “If you want to be happy, you need to take what you’ve done in your career and convert it into something new and different. For me, it has meant returning to my geology and Earth science roots and becoming even more fervent in my support of the University.”
The direct beneficiary of his latest gift shares Thonis’ appreciation for the broad impact of a focused investment. “I think there may be a surprising number of parallels between understanding the Earth system and navigating the finance world,” says Lu. “You need to pay attention to micro-scale details while tracking the big picture on a global scale. You constantly struggle with too much information and not enough information. The amazing thing about Mike is his success in having substantial influence and long-lasting impacts in both worlds.”
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