Education

Sacramento State receives the largest donation in its history. Who’s the benefactor?

Meet Sac State's $9 million science complex donor, Ernest Tschannen

Ernest Tschannen donated $9 million to the construction of California State University, Sacramento's new science complex, the largest single gift in university history.
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Ernest Tschannen donated $9 million to the construction of California State University, Sacramento's new science complex, the largest single gift in university history.

Ernest E. Tschannen celebrated his 93rd birthday not by receiving presents, but by giving Sacramento State its biggest gift ever.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg joined Sacramento State president Robert Nelsen for Tschannen’s “birthday party” Friday morning at Riverview Hall, where a ceremony was being held to announce the businessman’s $9 million donation to the university.

The donation will help finance Sacramento State’s $90.5 million science complex, $70.5 million of which is being paid for by the California State University system. Expected to open for classes by fall 2019, the 96,631-square-foot building, grounds, planetarium and observatory will be known as the Ernest E. Tschannen Science Complex.

Tschannen previously donated $38.5 million to UC Davis over several years after undergoing eye surgery there in 2000, and surprised Hornets basketball players by giving $750,000 to help fund a proposed arena and event center in 2015.

“Ernest’s support for Sacramento State and the science complex is in line with his philanthropic priorities – healthy aging, life sciences and the environment – as well as a tribute to his late brother, a chemist,” Nelsen said in a written statement. “I am honored that our science complex will bear the name of a man who has committed his life to help change the trajectory for so many of our students.”

The glass-walled science complex next to Hornet Bookstore will feature 30 biology and chemistry labs, a 120-seat planetarium and a roll-back rooftop observatory where Sacramento State’s two telescopes will be stored. A 235-pound brass Foucault pendulum gifted by longtime astronomy professor Chien Yuan Hu’s estate will swing from the lobby ceiling and mark the earth’s 24-hour rotation.

Born in Switzerland, Tschannen began his career as a mechanical engineer before real estate investments made him exceedingly wealthy. In a 2015 interview, the part-time Orangevale resident said he owned 3,500 apartment units and estimated his net worth to be $75 million.

An avid outdoorsman with a love of cycling, hiking and kayaking, Tschannen has bequested $1.5 million to the Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway and $500,000 to the American River Parkway Foundation in his will. Then-Mayor Kevin Johnson declared Feb. 16 Ernest E. Tschannen Day in 2016 to recognize his giving spirit.

Sacramento State’s second-largest donation came just three months ago, when former Sleep Train Mattress Centers owner Dale Carlsen gave $6 million to the university’s center for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Editor’s note: This story was changed online Feb. 16 to correctly name Riverview Hall as the event site.

Benjy Egel: 916-321-1052, @BenjyEgel

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