Etendue: James C. Wyant

April 22, 2014

The College of Optical Sciences recently received a $10 million gift for graduate student scholarships, setting a precedent as the largest contribution towards scholarships in the University of Arizona’s history. James C. (Jim) Wyant made this gift in celebration of the college’s 50th anniversary.

To increase its impact, Jim structured the commitment as a four-to-one matching gift offer on private donations made to endowments known as FoTO (Friends of Tucson Optics) scholarships. While contributions at any level to the FoTO scholarship general fund will be matched, donors (individual or group) who establish a new scholarship endowment by making a $100,000 gift — either outright or over a one- to four-year pledge plan — will get a $400,000 match from Jim and have the privilege to name their scholarship. 


Your $10 million gift was the largest gift for scholarship to the University of Arizona. What was your motivation?
There are two primary reasons. One, I wanted to do something for the University since it has been supporting me now for 40 years. I am especially grateful that the University showed incredible flexibility when I was partway through my teaching career and wanted to start up a company (WYKO Corp.). The second and leading reason was that I really would like to see our students succeed as they pursue their own interests in optics.  

Why the support to graduate student scholarships?
Our first-year Ph.D. students have a tremendous challenge in getting the experience they need before they can be instrumental to our faculty with research projects. They also have a substantial curriculum load their first two years. 

And your generous four-to-one matching gift offer?
I knew I could help by offering a gift to scholarship but I didn’t want to do this alone. When considering an existing agreement that the college had with the University for a FoTO scholarship program, I knew it was a good time to make this work. The University waives tuition and fees for FoTO endowments of at least $500,000. So, I figured if someone was willing to give $100,000, then I would give $400,000. Best yet, they get to name the scholarship. 

Are you pleased by the response to your offer?
Definitely! When you look at the donors who have sponsored scholarships so far, we have a professor from Rochester, a professor from Stanford and our own faculty who have written checks. We have several alumni, a private foundation, a professional association and a business leader now with scholarships. We even have a Ph.D. student who sponsored a scholarship.

You have co-founded several businesses and served as an adviser to others — what was your most memorable business opportunity?
WYKO was a fantastic experience. We made interferometers used for measuring roughness or surface shape of objects. Our timing was perfect. It was the early 1980s when personal computers were just coming on the market and any company who made hard disk drives needed us. Our instruments were superb at measuring the roughness of the disks and the shape of the recording heads. We had sales offices in 13 countries. It was, by far, one of the most exciting times of my life — and was also the source for the gift that I made to the college.

Is there an innovator of technology who strongly influenced your thinking?
Hewlett-Packard. During my time at WYKO, they were a role model for a lot of companies. In fact, we used to say “what would HP do?” They came out with new ideas and very high quality products. We never wanted to compete on price. But just like HP, we wanted to create something that no one else had yet offered, and with features that no one else yet introduced.

I also got a lot direction from IBM and Carmin Rosato, who managed IBM in Tucson. When he retired from the company, he became a board member at WYKO. He would then come in every week to beat me up with advice. He was fantastic and the company benefitted from him and the IBM influence.

What is one thing that few people know about Jim Wyant?
I was once a chicken farmer in Ohio. My father died when I was five years so I took over the family farm when I was 13. I was raising 28,000 chickens a year before I could even drive a car. By the age of 15, I added a new line. I bought and baled hay from local farmers. With the help of my high school friends during the summer, we would average 1,000 bales a day. A bale would cost me 25 cents and I sold them for 75 cents. When I added that with my chicken money, I was making far more money than my high school teachers. 

In 1974, Jim Wyant arrived to the University of Arizona as a professor in optical sciences. In 1999, he was named director of what was then the Optical Sciences Center and became the founding dean when the center became a college in 2005. He stepped down in 2012 but continues teaching as a professor emeritus. He has also co-founded several businesses, including WYKO Corp. and 4D Technology.