Bigfork Family Gifts $24 Million to UM College of Forestry

Bill and Carolyn Franke give single largest donation in campus history

By Tristan Scott
The Franke Family recently donated $24 million to the University of Montana's College of Forestry and Conservation, the largest single donation the University has ever received. Courtesy University of Montana

A Bigfork family has donated $24 million to the University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation, awarding the nationally renowned program the largest gift in campus history.

In a show of gratitude for the donation by Bill and Carolyn Franke, UM has renamed the school the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation.

Earlier this month, UM announced that the Frankes and their children had pledged the largest single gift in the history of the campus. Bill Franke is an airline magnate and the family has a home in the Bigfork area and an interest in conservation and education.

On Nov. 18, the Montana University System Board of Regents approved the naming of the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation and the Franke Global Leadership Initiative in honor the family’s transformative $24 million gift to the University of Montana.

“We are both humbled and affirmed by the Frankes’ thoughtful investment in UM,” said UM President Royce Engstrom. “The ongoing work of the College of Forestry and Conservation and Global Leadership Initiative will have a profound impact on our future.”

The Franke family members are not UM alumni but have a deep appreciation for Montana, Bill Franke said.

As the managing partner and founder of Indigo Partners, a private equity firm focused on worldwide investments in air transportation, and former CEO of several public companies, including America West Airlines, Franke said historically he has been careful with his donations.

“We are pretty careful about what we do in terms of giving, and we came across the University of Montana somewhat by happenstance,” he said.

During his early career in the timber industry, Bill Franke drove the Hi-Line and fell in love with the Big Sky Country. He and his wife, Carolyn, divide time between Texas and Arizona but have owned a home near Bigfork, Montana, since the 1990s, maintaining their connection to the beautiful forests, rivers and lakes of western Montana, he said.

For the past eight summers, a UM faculty member or alumni have been invited to speak to a group of the Frankes’ business partners during their annual Indigo Partners company retreat in Montana.

“As we became familiar with the educational opportunities, research and special programs at the University of Montana, it was clear to us the University is a hidden gem,” Bill Franke said.

“It is our expectation that the College of Forestry and Conservation’s work will help keep Montana the beautiful place that it is. And we are believers that the Global Leadership Initiative will train students to look beyond their own experiences and home geography to recognize that we live in a global economy.”

The decision to invest in UM was a family endeavor involving Bill and Carolyn’s five children: Dave, who oversees the family office, Franke and Company; Brian, a principal at Indigo Partners; Paige and Catherine, who are both educators; and Rebecca.

“Our family has been very fortunate in life,” said Dave, noting that his father’s education was a catalyst for the family’s achievements. “To create that same opportunity for a student – to fuel a desire to create their own success – that’s our ambition.”

The Frankes’ gift is focused on students and programs that emphasize environmental research and hands-on learning experiences. A large portion of the gift, $18 million, will fuel education and research in the college, providing competitive fellowship awards to faculty and graduate students, funding for undergraduates to learn about conservation through study abroad and service learning projects, and scholarships for both graduate and undergraduate students. It will also fund two faculty positions in forest conservation and watershed hydrology and support students doing internships related to their majors.

The remaining $6 million dollars will fund scholarships for Franke Global Leadership Initiative students pursuing educational experiences outside of the classroom including internships, service learning, study abroad, research and field experiences. Additionally, the gift will support critical staffing and operations to continue building the program. UM’s Global Leadership Initiative is a four-year, 12-credit certificate program that provides undergraduate students opportunities to explore society’s most pressing questions by combining local and global practical experiences with classroom education.

“We have been very impressed by the UM students we have met,” Carolyn said. “I am confident that there are students and faculty at this University who will help improve lives.”

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