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UM Breaks Ground on Duff Center for Science and Technology Innovation

By JB Clark

University of Mississippi Communications

Chancellor Glenn Boyce (left), Jim Duff, Thomas Duff, Sen. Roger Wicker and William Yates break ground to ceremonially mark the beginning of construction on the new Jim and Thomas Duff Center for Science and Technology Innovation. The ceremony was Friday morning (Oct. 29) at The Sandy and John Black Pavilion at Ole Miss, just across the street from the new center’s site. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

A cold rain forced Friday’s Duff Center groundbreaking ceremony indoors, but that didn’t dampen the spirits of more than 200 University of Mississippi supporters and community members from showing up to celebrate the largest single construction project ever on the Oxford campus. 

Jim and Thomas Duff, the brothers and owners of Duff Capital Investors who have committed $26 million to building the new facility designed to boost science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, said they are excited to see construction beginning on a project they’ve envisioned for a long time. 

“We are excited about today and we look forward to the future,” Thomas Duff said during the ceremony at The Sandy and John Black Pavilion at Ole Miss. 

“When I was walking through here, looking at how new the Pavilion is, I got to thinking of the hundreds of thousands of students who have walked these roads and gone through the corridors of the buildings whose lives have been changed because of their experience at Ole Miss.” 

Just across the street from the ceremony, crews from Yates Construction Co. have already begun work at the site, on All-American Drive across from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. 

“We’re deeply grateful to Jim and Thomas Duff for their significant investment in our vision to produce graduates who are going to fill critical needs and bring new jobs to the state of Mississippi,” Chancellor Glenn Boyce said. “This long-anticipated building will become a fixture of the campus and an unparalleled asset for our students, shaping the next generation of STEM-educated citizens and, of course, maximizing their opportunities.”

The new center will not only prepare more students for an increasingly STEM-focused job market, but its interdisciplinary nature will facilitate collaboration as students learn and faculty teach and research across the many disciplines under the STEM umbrella, Boyce said. 

“They will build strong relationships and networks like all of us have, that will last a lifetime,” he explained. “So the building of this facility goes way beyond just the facility and just programing, it goes to the heart of who we are at Ole Miss.”

A Family Affair

Ernest Duff, the late father of Jim and Thomas, was a lifelong supporter of the university and its sports teams. He earned both his undergraduate and law degrees from UM. During his time on campus, he served as student body president, on the Mississippi Law Journal staff and ultimately graduated first in his law school class.

“Our dad was from Columbia, from a poor family but a good family,” Jim Duff said. “He came to Oxford and it really changed his life. He loved Ole Miss. I remember as a kid he was always listening to Ole Miss on the radio, and the stories that we heard our whole lives were of his experiences at Ole Miss.”

Ernest Duff went on to have a successful business and law career, founding Southern Tire Mart, which would lead to the establishment of Duff Capital Investors. The parent company comprises more than 20 companies and employs more than 13,000 people across the country. 

Both of Jim Duff’s daughters recently graduated from UM, Caroline with a bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies and Maggie with a degree from the School of Law.

A Local, State and Global Impact

“It’s a good day for our university, it’s a good day for our state, and it’s a good day for our country,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, who has worked on legislation in the Senate that aims to make the U.S. more globally competitive in STEM professions. 

“We are in a competition with the rest of the world, … and this wonderful Duff Center will be part and parcel with our ability to compete effectively and successfully in that arena. In so doing, that means jobs for Americans, that means better technology for Americans, and it means a better national defense for the United States of America.” 

The Duffs, who have built their company on innovation and entrepreneurship, said education – especially education of this nature – is personally important to them but also key to growing the state’s workforce as the national and global labor markets increase. Thomas Duff pointed out that the number of STEM graduates from Mississippi’s public universities is well below the national average. 

“It goes to show what we can do if we apply ourselves and make this school prosper,” he said. 

The Jim and Thomas Duff Center for Science and Technology Innovation will be home to classrooms and labs for biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering and physics. The 202,000-square-foot building will feature technology-enabled active learning, a 3D visualization lab, and fabrication and testing equipment in addition to additional traditional lab space. 

“Ultimately, the Duff Center will support growth in our state, our region and our country.” Boyce said. “We’re going to produce health professionals, engineers, and science and math teachers. We’re going to have an expansion of research and advancement of our teaching mission that’s really going to support and reaffirm the R1 status of the university.

“It, absolutely without question, is going to be one of the crown jewels of our university and it will become one of the nation’s leading student-centered learning environments for all STEM education.”

A Team of Support

Jim and Thomas Duff committed $26 million to the construction of the Duff Center, but they aren’t along in their support of the $175 million undertaking, which includes $135 million in actual construction costs. 

The Gertrude C. Ford Foundation, of Jackson, committed $20 million to the facility and also pledged another $5 million for the gardens that will surround the building, including a commemorative area honoring renowned author William Faulkner.

Other support for the center’s construction comes from the state of Mississippi and many other alumni and friends of the university.

For more information on supporting the STEM facility, contact Charlotte Parks at cpparks@olemiss.edu or 662-915-3120; or visit http://give.olemiss.edu. Other naming opportunities are available inside the Duff Center.

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