Powering data-driven research and learning

The O’Donnell Foundation advances SMU’s digital future with a $30 million gift to name and endow SMU’s data science institute and support engineering excellence.


Championing meaningful research and preparing students in engineering and other fields for a data-driven world increasingly relies on a university’s strengths in data science, research computing and digital innovation. A new $30 million gift from the O’Donnell Foundation, founded by the late Peter O’Donnell, Jr. and the late Edith Jones O’Donnell, will support the future of technological innovation and education at SMU.

The O’Donnell Foundation’s gift will strengthen SMU as a center for applying the latest technology to enhance innovation and learning.

— R. Gerald Turner, SMU president

The gift includes endowment and operational gifts in two areas:

  • $15 million for the O’Donnell Data Science and Research Computing Institute, which launched in 2020 and serves as the hub for students and researchers across the campus and community who access the SMU supercomputing system and data science resources.
  • $15 million for the Initiative for Digital Innovation in Engineering and Computer Science in the Lyle School of Engineering, which will further strengthen interdisciplinary research and teaching across engineering fields.

SMU launched its first supercomputer in 2014 as faculty and administration leaders embraced the growing teaching and research opportunities provided by the sophisticated collection and analysis of data. Over the last ten years, SMU has broadened data-driven curricula and research across disciplines with the support of gifts for enhanced technology, endowed faculty positions, facilities that strengthen collaboration and the creation of the Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies.

“Peter and Edith O’Donnell left a remarkable legacy of supporting education in North Texas and beyond,” said R. Gerald Turner, SMU president. “This gift from their foundation is a milestone for us because it provides critical support for our decadelong strategy to strengthen SMU as a center for applying the latest technology to enhance innovation and learning.”


Expected impact

  • Elevates SMU’s reputation as a hub for innovation, collaboration and interdisciplinary research.
  • Provides dynamic learning and research opportunities to employ data science in a number of fields across the University, including in engineering and computer science.
  • Supports the University’s strategic goal of increasing the number of substantially endowed academic chairs and professorships.

The O’Donnell Foundation’s gift deepens its previous contributions to SMU Ignited: Boldly Shaping Tomorrow, the University’s multiyear $1.5 billion campaign for impact, particularly the campaign’s goal to enrich teaching and research. Ten new endowed academic positions will be funded through the gift, bringing the University’s total to 145 toward the 160 substantially endowed chairs and academic positions called for in SMU’s strategic plan. Additionally, the gift provides money for research grants and technology upgrades.

“We believe, as did Peter O’Donnell, Jr., that high performance computing and the effective implementation of an integrated data science initiative are key components to the success of great modern universities,” said William T. Solomon, O’Donnell Foundation president and CEO. “We are proud that Peter and Edith’s names will forever be connected with fueling future computational learning and discovery at SMU.”

The newly-named O’Donnell Data Science and Research Computing Institute will be led by the O’Donnell Director of the institute, an endowed position created through a 2022 gift from the O’Donnell Foundation. The foundation’s new gift provides endowment and operational funding for:

  • Technology and hardware that will be used by faculty across the University.
  • Startup research by faculty that employs data science approaches and shows promise of securing long-term external funding.
  • Two endowed professorships that will each provide two years of support for faculty in a wide variety of disciplines.
  • An endowed associate director position to manage the institute’s internal operations and enable the O’Donnell Director to focus on building interdisciplinary initiatives and external research partnerships that employ data science methods.

“Peter O’Donnell served the SMU Board of Trustees faithfully for nearly a decade, so the current trustees are particularly grateful for this gift from the O’Donnell Foundation,” said David B. Miller ’72, ’73, SMU Board of Trustees chair. “Because Peter and Edith made enduring contributions to the University, they remain an integral part of the work SMU does to inspire its students, expand its research and improve its community.”


High performance computing and the effective implementation of an integrated data science initiative are key components to the success of great modern universities.

— William T. Solomon, O’Donnell Foundation President and CEO

The second half of the foundation’s gift, the Initiative for Digital Innovation in Engineering and Computer Science in the Lyle School of Engineering, will promote interdisciplinary research and collaboration by future generations of engineers working together for a sustainable and smarter future. Operational and endowment support will go to:

  • Three endowed positions for department chairs, the first such positions in the history of SMU:
    • Mechanical engineering.
    • Computer science.
    • Electrical and computer engineering.
  • Four additional endowed professorships.
  • Support for Ph.D. students and postdocs who will contribute to research projects led by the endowed faculty.

“The exponential creation of data and the need to understand it is profoundly changing the way universities must approach both educating students and pursuing research,” said Elizabeth G. Loboa, SMU provost and vice president for academic affairs. “Data literacy for our students combined with the capability to use sophisticated computer modeling and artificial intelligence toward research is crucial to meeting many challenges here in North Texas and around the world. The O’Donnell Foundation’s gift is a major step for us in meeting those goals.”

Together, the O’Donnell Data Science and Research Computing Institute and the Lyle School’s Initiative for Digital Innovation in Engineering and Computer Science will elevate SMU’s standing as a premier global research institution. They will foster collaboration with peer institutions and national partners and provide SMU students with dynamic opportunities to study in several specialized fields. Additionally, the O’Donnell Institute and the Initiative for Digital Innovation will help SMU attract, support and retain outstanding faculty who conduct significant interdisciplinary research.

“When our supporters endow academic positions and provide related resources, they help SMU attract and retain outstanding faculty who create new knowledge for our students and pursue innovative research breakthroughs,” said Brad E. Cheves, SMU vice president for Development and External Affairs. “We are grateful to the O’Donnell Foundation for its investment in SMU and – through our students and research – our neighbors in North Texas and beyond.”


The O’Donnell Foundation gift is a major step toward meeting crucial challenges here in North Texas and around the world.

— Elizabeth G. Loboa, SMU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

The O’Donnell Foundation

The O’Donnell Foundation was established in 1957 by Peter O’Donnell, Jr. and Edith O’Donnell, seeking to improve STEM education by building model programs to better enhance and develop teaching and learning in Texas. The foundation also supports advanced placement programs in math, science, English and art, as well as higher education arts programming. A longtime supporter of SMU and its mission, the foundation has given generously to programs and initiatives across campus, including STEM education, SMU summer programs and SMU-in-Taos. In 2014, the O’Donnell Foundation was the recipient of SMU’s coveted Mustang Award.

Peter O’Donnell, Jr. and Edith Jones O’Donnell

Edith Jones O’Donnell and Peter O’Donnell, Jr.A Dallas native, Peter O’Donnell, Jr. dedicated his life to bettering his community and his state through service in the military, nonprofit and political sectors. A graduate of Sewanee: The University of the South in 1947, Peter O’Donnell went on to receive an MBA from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania following his naval service during World War II. After his military service, he went on to serve as the state chairman of the Republican Party (1962–1969) and on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (1981–1985).

Upon return to his hometown, O’Donnell spent the remainder of his life focused on improving education, supporting the arts and actively working in politics in Dallas and throughout the state of Texas. In 2005, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and served on the Presidents’ Circle of the National Academy of Sciences. A founding member of the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, O’Donnell also founded Laying the Foundation and the Advanced Placement Incentive Program, which seeks to increase the participation of low-income students in Advanced Placement courses and tests.

A major supporter of education, healthcare and the Dallas arts community, Edith Jones O’Donnell was a native of Abilene, Texas. Earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from The University of Texas at Austin, she spent much of her life supporting philanthropic causes and organizations across the state of Texas. In addition to her service to the community, Edith O’Donnell served on the board of trustees for her alma mater, The Hockaday School, as well as boards and committees across the region. A longtime supporter of the Dallas Museum of Art, she served as a volunteer guide for the museum before serving as a trustee and education committee chair. Serving a six-year term on the Texas Commission on the Arts, Edith O’Donnell established the Advanced Placement Arts and Music Theory Incentive program, which seeks to support art and music education and scholarships for middle and high school students.

In 1987, Edith O’Donnell and fellow civic leader Mitch Jericho cofounded Big Thought, an impact-driven nonprofit that “closes the opportunity gap by equipping all youth in marginalized communities with the skills and tools they need to imagine and create their best lives and a better world.” The organization offers programming and partnerships for student development from elementary through high school. A lifelong lover of arts and education, Edith O’Donnell was also a staunch supporter of The Dallas Opera, the AT&T Performing Arts Center, the Dallas Symphony and Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

The O’Donnells’ commitment and service to SMU ran long and deep. Peter O’Donnell, Jr. served as a member of the Board of Trustees (1973–1981), the Board of Governors (1974–1981) and on the Lyle School of Engineering Executive Board (1990–1991). In 2008, honoring their incredible contributions to education and art, Peter and Edith O’Donnell were granted the degrees of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, an honor only granted to those who have exhibited remarkable philanthropy through contributions to humanitarian and charitable causes. The O’Donnells’ relationship with the University was further strengthened through their support of programs across SMU, including SMU-in-Taos, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and Meadows School of the Arts.

SMU Ignited: Boldly Shaping Tomorrow

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and more than 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world. Building on its history of excellence, SMU Ignited: Boldly Shaping Tomorrow is the University’s multiyear $1.5 billion campaign to empower students, to enrich teaching and research and to enhance our campus and community.