The Daily Gamecock

McNair Air Center blueprint announced

$5 million Darla Moore donation yet to arrive, USC says



USC officials are piecing together plans for their new Ronald McNair Aerospace Center, which they hope will see a first crop of students “within a year or two.”

The center — spurred by a $5 million donation from benefactor Darla Moore after she was removed from the university’s board of trustees — was announced with few tangible details during her Russell House visit in March. But a blueprint as to how the university will operate the center is slowly emerging.

Current plans have the center’s hub at the Swearingen Engineering and Computing building on USC’s campus, but officials hope to eventually develop a presence in Charleston as well. The center will not have a permanent “brick and mortar” home of its own, said USC Provost Michael Amiridis. Among other developments are curriculum plans for two master’s degrees, agreements with other universities for research and development collaboration, and discussions with corporations and professors about how to fully develop and market the aerospace center.

Moore’s $5 million donation hasn’t yet arrived in the university’s coffers, and USC officials have used various departmental budgets to fund the project’s beginnings — and its current part-time director Robert Kiggans. The donation is expected to arrive within a month, Amiridis said.

“There is potential for us to be up and running in one year,” Amiridis said. “Our goal is that five years from now, we are recognized as a premier engineering aerospace center.”

The university wants to eventually fund the program with tuition dollars, federal grants and contracts, corporation membership dues and industry projects. Kiggans, who has flown B-52 fighter planes, served in top posts at several federal agencies and led international delegations, said the project is personal to him.

“I don’t need this job,” he said. “It’s not just a job. I care about this project and want it to be successful ... I think about it all the time on weekends.”

Students could pursue master’s degrees in aerospace engineering and aerospace management at USC’s Columbia campus, according to the current blueprint. Curricula for those degrees is currently under review, but university officials want to collaborate with the Darla Moore School of Business, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the law school, Kiggans said. He added that those partnerships would provide students with much-needed knowledge in supply chain management, business liabilities and human interaction. Those degree programs still face state approval, Amiridis said.

Kiggans said there will surely be student interest in the program, as jobs with Boeing, Gulfstream and other subsidiary companies are expected to exponentially increase in South Carolina. Boeing moved much of its operations to the Lowcountry in October 2009.

“There’s such a need for these kinds of people, and there’s going to be more of a need,” Kiggans said. “Boeing needs people with these kinds of capabilities badly.”

Students in the center would also collaborate with USC researchers for research and development, known in the business world simply as “R and D”. Those developments could potentially spur spin-off companies and new marketable ideas, Kiggans said.

Much of Kiggans’ time is currently spent building relationships — in both higher education circles and the corporate sector — for the new center.

USC has established two partnerships with the University of Sheffield, a European university known for airplane manufacturing, and with Trident Technical College, recently home to a new “Dreamliner area.” The second agreement contains a clause that could turn a two-year aerospace program at Trident into a four-year program sponsored by USC.

Practical details of these “memorandums of understanding” are still being discussed, Kiggans said, but “being a connected center is vitally important,” he said.

Agreements with Clemson University and Ohio State University are currently in the works, Kiggans said.

USC also plans to create a membership model for “at least 15 corporations” to join the center. Discussions with Boeing and other companies concerning potential collaboration is still ongoing. No plans have been finalized.


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