EXCLUSIVE: USC’s McNair aerospace center gets $1 million donation

ashain@thestate.comSeptember 29, 2013 

Marva Smalls

— A television network executive will donate $1 million on Monday to endow scholarships for the University of South Carolina’s new aerospace research program named after Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair.

Marva Smalls, a Florence native and USC graduate who is an executive vice president at Viacom and Nickelodeon, said the scholarships will go to minority students from the state’s Pee Dee region majoring in computer science and engineering.

“Hopefully, we are creating the next generation of leaders and scientists,” said Smalls, 56. “This was a great chance to give back to my hometown.”

Like McNair, Smalls grew up in the Pee Dee, the northeast corner of the state that is rural outside of the Florence and the Myrtle Beach area. Smalls now works in New York but has homes in Charleston and Florence, where her 89-year-old mother lives.

Smalls said she wants to give Pee Dee students a chance to get the high-tech, high-paying jobs that come with the state’s growing aerospace business. Boeing opened its only jet manufacturing plant outside the Seattle area in North Charleston in 2011.

Smalls said she met McNair, a Lake City native killed in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, while working as the chief of staff for then-U.S. Rep. Robin Tallon, a Florence Democrat.

“It will be a continuation of his legacy, and I believe that students will identify with him having come from a rural area,” she said. “We will create a new caliber of scholars that will come from the Pee Dee area.”

Smalls becomes the third woman to donate more than $1 million to the USC aerospace center.

Darla Moore, a Lake City financier who is USC’s biggest benefactor, kick-started the center in 2011 with a $5 million donation. Anita Zucker, a Charleston businesswoman who is the richest person in the state, gave $5 million last year.

“Women have a strong and innate sense to give back,” Smalls said. “I have a passion for helping kids.”

The contributions will be counted toward USC’s $1 billion Carolina’s Promise fundraising campaign, which has raised $778 million so far, a school spokesman said. Smalls’ donation is the campaign’s 59th gift of $1 million or more.

The McNair Center opened this fall, offering graduate programs in aerospace engineering and engineering management, and an undergraduate minor in aerospace engineering. The programs have a total of 22 students, center executive director Martin Keaney said.

Two of the center’s first three dedicated professors have been hired, Keaney said, and work is underway on two labs that will work on advanced composites manufacturing and lightning response. A master’s degree program in systems design could start next fall.

Boeing has not donated any money to the center but is interested in the academic programs and research that the center is offering, Keaney said.

Smalls’ contribution is the McNair center’s first gift earmarked for scholarships. Smalls has given to USC in the past to help the African-American studies program.

“The university served as a starting point for much of my journey,” Smalls said.

Smalls: College trustee votes like ‘insider trading’

After a lengthy career in government and television, Marva Smalls applied to be a member of the Medical University of South Carolina’s board of trustees this year — and said she got an education.

The Florence native said she lost an election in the General Assembly this spring to former state Rep. James Battle because state lawmakers prefer one of their own “no matter what else they bring.”

“I likened it to insider trading,” the Viacom executive vice president said. “It’s an unfortunate process for the state.”

In May, nine new trustees who either are family members of legislators or have close ties to the Legislature were elected to seats at various state public colleges. Another woman was defeated for an MUSC board seat when businesswoman Susan Pearlstine lost to the brother of Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston. The MUSC board remained all male after the lawmakers’ election.

While Smalls had no problems with Battle, an Horry County Democrat, she said the way trustees are elected does not take advantage of the talent available in the state.

“I am trying to be part of moving this state forward,” said Smalls, who said she was interested in the trustee seat in part because she donated money to MUSC to study sarcoidosis, a breathing disorder she suffers.

Smalls said legislators urged her to drop out of the race for the seat held by her one-time boss, former U.S. Rep. Robin Tallon. She refused because she wanted lawmakers to have a recorded vote. Smalls lost 97-67.

State Sen. Harvey Peeler, the Cherokee Republican who chairs the joint legislative college trustee screening committee, said some concerns were raised about Smalls’ residency. Though she works in New York, Smalls said her legal residence is in her hometown of Florence.

Peeler said he was unhappy about “some things” with this year’s trustee elections but declined to say what specifically. Peeler, who voted for Battle, said he is working on ways to improve how lawmakers choose college trustees.

“I’m open for suggestions,” he said.

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service