A $25 million donation made to the University of Texas at El Paso – the biggest gift in its 108-year history – will help transform the university’s renamed Woody L. Hunt College of Business into the best place for those wishing to teach, learn and research international trade and business, officials said Thursday.

The college will use the donation from the Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation to enhance its ability to research trade, commerce and entrepreneurship between the United States and Mexico and become the country’s leading expert in that area.

Woody Hunt said the donation, the latest in the family’s 35-year legacy of philanthropy toward the university, will allow UTEP to attract top researchers, professors and future students to the college.

More than 250 people, including El Paso civic and business leaders, elected officials and UTEP students, staff, faculty and administrators, as well as University of Texas System Chancellor James B. Milliken, filled the Larry K. Durham’s Hall of Champions for the announcement. Hunt attended the event with his wife, Gayle, and members of their family.

“Our family’s vision for this investment is for UTEP to become a destination school for those wishing to specialize and truly gain an advantage in education about U.S.-Mexico business, international trade, and commerce, and help with shaping our future business leaders,” Hunt said as part of his prepared remarks.

Hunt is chair of the Hunt Family Foundation and senior chairman of the Board of Directors of the Hunt Companies, Inc. Since 1987, the foundation has donated more than $12 million to UTEP. Its gifts include $5 million in 2010 to establish the Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness and $2 million in 2018 to assist with upgrades to the Sun Bowl Stadium.

The businessman/philanthropist has lent his insights and leadership in many areas of health care and education. He served on the University of Texas System Board of Regents from 1999 to 2005. The foundation donated $25 million in 2016 to Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso for the Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine that opened in 2021. Also in 2021, Hunt accepted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s request to lead the Texas Commission on Community College Finance.

UTEP celebrated a “Picks Up” moment at its announcement of a $25 million gift from the Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation. From left, Jake Logan, UTEP vice president for institutional advancement, UTEP President Heather Wilson, Woody Hunt, Gayle Hunt and James B. Milliken, chancellor of the University of Texas System. (Daniel Perez/El Paso Matters)

University President Heather Wilson praised Hunt and stressed the importance of the donation to the university in part because of its location along the U.S.-Mexico border. She stated that the U.S. has more than $700 billion in trade with Mexico and 20% of that trade comes through El Paso. 

She said donations such as the one by the Hunt Foundation change lives and will enhance the university’s research potential, benefit its students and help the El Paso community. 

UTEP has been classified as a Carnegie R1 (Very High Research) institution since December 2018 based on such factors as its annual research expenditures, undergraduate and graduate instructional programs and its enrollment profile. Much of the research conducted at UTEP is focused on issues that affect the Paso del Norte region’s health, culture, education and economy.

“This is a transformational gift that will impact this region for decades to come,” Wilson said.

The previous record for the largest donation to UTEP was a $10 million gift made in 2011 by university graduate Mike Loya, then-president and managing director of Vitol Inc., one of the world’s largest oil trading companies. The university used the money to support research initiatives, graduate student development and entrepreneurship and to develop courses that integrate engineering and business education.

Among the benefits of the Hunt Foundation gift will be the creation of two distinguished chairs, a new distinguished professorship and multiple endowed fellowships and provide funds for academic, research and professional development initiatives as well as create an endowment to expand the research conducted by the Hunt Institute, which conducts economic, policy-oriented analysis for the border region.

James E. Payne, dean of the Woody L. Hunt College of Business, told the audience that he was speaking through “tears of joy.” He said the foundation’s donation would help with the college’s goal of becoming the go-to institution to understand the vital trade relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.

Payne said that one of the first missions will be to involve faculty and industry representatives to modify the curriculum throughout the college and look for hands-on learning opportunities for undergraduates. Another top priority is to form search committees for distinguished professors and chairs who are experts in supply chain, logistics, transportation as well as international trade and economics.

He added the current faculty can apply for fellowships that will help them with their research, possibly in association with the Hunt Institute, in such areas as U.S. trade and business relations. Lastly, he said the gift will give the college additional resources to help pay for guest speakers, and corporate site visits, conferences and competitions for students.   

“We’re already well known in the field, but this gift will take us to the next level making the Woody L. Hunt College of Business the premier business school in the U.S. for international commerce focused on our second-largest trading partner,” Payne said.

Tom Fullerton, a professor of economics and finance at UTEP, said that U.S. Census Bureau data showed that Canada is the largest U.S. trading partner by a small percentage and that Canada and Mexico are on pace to have combined imports and exports in excess of $750 billion in 2022. As for the gift announcement, he said that a donation of that magnitude to a state university is very rare.

“What Woody and Gayle Hunt have done for the University of Texas at El Paso in 2022 is highly unique and will provide a lot of momentum for research and instruction at this campus,” Fullerton said.

After the ceremony, Hunt said that discussions about this gift started about a year ago during a meeting with Payne and that serious conversations started this past spring. He said the amount was right for the breadth and scope of planned enhancements, which also will include field work  for students. He said the final paperwork was signed just before Thanksgiving.

Milliken, the UT chancellor, lauded Hunt as a trusted sounding board in the areas of education, economics and workforce development. He said the $25 million donation will position the business school as the leader in teaching and research in trade and commerce between the U.S. and Mexico.

“(UTEP) is such an important institution, one that is markedly more important after today’s gift,” Milliken said.

Disclosure: The Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters in partnership with Open Campus.