One day, some years ago, Professor Tom O’Brien’s boss gave him a little extra money to spend on his department.
O’Brien, who headed up the School of Business’s finance department, knew his Ph.D. students were living on a small stipend and carrying a substantial teaching load for the department. So he decided to use the money to buy laptops for the Ph.D. students.
He was startled by their reaction.
“The students were so grateful,” he said. “I was really glad I did it. I stumbled onto doing something that really made an important difference for them.”
O’Brien, now an emeritus faculty member, recently donated $100,000 to set up a fund for assisting current and future Ph.D. students in the Finance Department. He reflected, “I have never forgotten how challenging my Ph.D. program in Finance was. That memory was the fuel for wanting to help UConn’s finance Ph.D. students, and the laptop event was the spark.”
O’Brien sent word of the fund to UConn Finance Ph.D. graduates teaching at universities throughout the United States and around the world. To date, more than 25 have rallied to help with generous gifts to the fund. “I’ve been sincerely moved by the great response of these former students,” he said.
The fund is already making an impact, providing laptops to five students so far.
“My old laptop broke down over the summer and I was actually thinking that it would take a whole year for me to save for this new laptop from Ph.D. student allowances,” said Hui Li, a second-year graduate student. “I was truly relieved and more than thankful.”
Finance doctoral student Zekun Wu said the gift has made it much easier to process data for his research. “It used to take me days to calculate option portfolio returns, but with the new workstation it only takes several hours,” Wu said. “For me, his generosity is not only funding support but is also a great encouragement for my future research.”
O’Brien, who grew up in Houston and still speaks with a charming, Woody Harrelson-like twang, decided to name the fund after Professor Emeritus Keith Johnson. Johnson was not only his supervisor and mentor, but was widely regarded as a fair and respected leader in the School of Business, he said. They saw eye-to-eye on many departmental issues and immediately hit it off.
“He was a guy that I immediately realized was going to be a father figure to me and became a very good friend,” he said. “He was the finance department head who got the Ph.D. program running, and he appointed me as the director in the early 1990s.”
O’Brien, who graduated from Davidson College and earned an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania, remembers his own arduous but ultimately successful experiences as a doctoral student at the University of Florida.
He went on to teach at University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Duke University, and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill before coming to UConn in 1986.
As professor emeritus, he still does scholarly research and attends conferences, and he comes back to campus three days a week to play basketball in a mixed-age “pick-up” game at noon. He says he is grateful for his rewarding career at UConn and wanted to give back.
“It’s great to give if you’ve got the money to give. It’s easy to do,” he said. “There’s inertia if you haven’t ever given before. You have to see the light, so to speak. You want to be separated from your money. You don’t really need all of it.”