An Historic Precedent

William A. Finn ’67 Establishes Two Historic Endowments

William A. Finn ’67

From his time as a textile engineering student at what was then called Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science to today, alumnus William A. Finn ’67’s vision for where his alma mater would—and could—go has been limitless. Thanks to his continued generosity and infinite imagination, Finn is setting an exciting example of the power of philanthropy—and possibility—ahead of Jefferson’s upcoming Bicentennial celebration.

A committed alum and early advocate and champion of the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering, and Commerce, Finn has generously created two historic endowments—the William A. Finn ’67 Director of the Design, Engineering and Commerce (DEC) Core Curriculum and the William A. Finn ’67 Student Leadership Program.

Finn’s remarkable gift is literally making history. Prior to the merger, there had never been an endowed professorship donated to Textile or PhilaU.  The Finn Directorship of the DEC Core Curriculum will be the first on the East Falls campus. It is also the first professorship endowed as part of the Bicentennial campaign. Current program director Dana Scott will be named as the inaugural holder. A multidisciplinary artist and accomplished educator, Scott has exercised the leadership to modernize and update the DEC Core Curriculum to address several Hallmarks learning outcomes, satisfy the university Creativity Core requirement, and anticipate future university Computational Thinking requirements.

Akin to a leadership institute or honors program, the unique Finn Student Leadership Program will provide academically talented, driven, and intellectually curious Kanbar College students three years of substantive curricular and co-curricular experiences in organizational leadership, innovation, and creativity, ensuring direct and meaningful contact with faculty, outstanding peers, and industry leaders. A cohort of 10 individuals will be selected starting in their sophomore year, using the DEC Core Curriculum as a mechanism for identifying leadership potential, with the ultimate goal of better preparing them for their roles as the next generation of industry leaders in their chosen professions.

Growing up in Milton, Massachusetts, Finn came by his interest in textiles organically, through his family’s business. “My grandfather was a very successful, self-made textile mill owner in Canton, Massachusetts,” he says. “From a very young age, I wanted to study textiles. Starting at age five, I used to go to the mill with my father, who worked there at the time.”

For Finn, a self-billed “engineer at heart,” Textile was a perfect fit. “I had a great experience studying textile engineering,” he shares. “I learned a lot not only about my field, but also about leadership, and about myself. I was involved in many different activities on campus. As president of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, I formed great friendships, and still stay in touch with my classmates. All of that is probably what led me to engage in a lot of different community activities throughout my career.” 

During his junior and senior years, Finn worked as a lab technician as an intern for Asten Hill, an industrial textile company. In the early 1970s following graduate school and a year-long stint in the Army, Finn returned to work for two years at Celanese Corporation, a fiber manufacturing company, followed by a return to Asten Hill, which became AstenJohnson, where he remained for 54 years, the rest of his career. “It was never boring!” he says. “I was hired to be plant manager, which began my career in management. I loved it. I went on to be national sales manager, general manager at one of the big divisions in the company, and then was invited to be CEO.”

The Philadelphia-based company grew and prospered under Finn’s leadership, and today is a global business headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina, with 17 plants located across the world. “We grew the brand globally and I was always reinventing myself and reinventing the company,” he shares.

No matter where in the world Finn’s career took him, his connection—and commitment—to Jefferson never wavered. “I learned from Jefferson that education doesn’t finish when you leave—it continues,” he says. His leadership, advocacy, and early championship for the collaborative academic model were instrumental in helping to create the Kanbar College, ushering in an exciting era of innovation on campus with the adoption of the DEC Core Curriculum. 

“From the first time I heard about the vision for the DEC program, I was a supporter,” Finn shares.  “I loved it when I heard it. Higher education is full of silos, and this was an attempt to structurally break them down. I know the importance of having well-rounded young leaders that are willing to step out of their traditional career lanes and take on new responsibilities that will help build management and leadership skills. The best, the brightest, the most productive people that I ever had worked with were cross-functional and weren’t educated in silos. Starting this process as an undergraduate gives DEC graduates a big advantage in their careers. The program provides a more well-rounded education, particularly to go into the business field.”

Finn’s generosity, ambassadorship, and advocacy on behalf of the Kanbar College have been instrumental not only in its creation, but also in the ongoing success and future of the program. “I think the excitement was the opportunity to fundamentally change education, and to look at a different approach in developing very good leaders,” he says. “People are looking for students with a professional education, and we are on the forefront. This is going to move history forward for the school and its students.”

“Bill’s gift is a reflection of his conviction and leadership in the Design, Engineering, and Commerce curriculum and the promise it holds for the success of our students,” says Geoffrey Cromarty, EdD, senior vice president of operations for the East Falls campus. “This transformative gift will truly help to change lives for the better.”

Finn served on the board of trustees of Philadelphia University from 2008 to 2018, was vice chair of the board from 2012 to 2018 at the time of the merger with Jefferson, and continued on with the Jefferson board for a short time thereafter. He also served on the Jefferson Academic Board, the Sigma Phi Epsilon Scholarship Committee, and is a member of the Tapestry Society. Jefferson recognized his stalwart leadership and dedication, bestowing the Leader of Innovation Medal at the 2014 Celebration of Innovation and the Graham J. Littlewood III ’42 Time, Talent, & Treasure Award in 2017.

The creation of the William A. Finn ’67 Directorship and Student Leadership Program endowments was inspired by his own Jefferson experience. “As an undergraduate I was very grateful for the scholarships I received to assist with my tuition,” he explains. “I always said to myself that if I was ever in a position to do the same, I would do so in honor of the people, organizations, and alumni who funded my scholarships several generations ago.”

“Bill’s personal and professional journey is an exemplar of how a strong transdisciplinary education can lead to a rewarding, impactful, and enjoyable career path that will positively impact a wide range of people,” says Ron Kander, PhD, executive dean of the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce. “His support of the Kanbar College Leadership Program will encourage our current and future students to pursue equally meaningful career paths using Bill’s own story as their inspiration.”

Finn’s gifts have set significant precedents for Jefferson with the potential to touch generations of students. “I’m honored to fund the first endowed professorship as part of the Bicentennial campaign and the first one on the East Falls campus,” he says. “I hope it will be followed by many, many more. Jefferson is about the excellent, dedicated faculty that make a lasting impact on their students’ lives and their careers. Life starts with the first steps, and my hope is that this will be the first of many endowed chairs in the years to come. Strong faculties are the backbone of great universities.”

He shares, “Students of today will face many new complex challenges that will require them to become strong leaders. I hope that the Student Leadership Program will expose a group of highly engaged students to many different leaders and leadership styles who are making a difference and leading the way to a more just and sustainable future.” 

“The ability for me to help support Jefferson in this initiative and to fund the directorship and leadership program as part of it, is, I think, enormous,” he shares. “Providing the funding is really essential to make sure that we’re building something that will last and make a fundamental difference for the graduates and the people that go through this program. It’s an incredible opportunity for young people to learn leadership skills in a way that they just wouldn’t have had. Basically, it is about education, but also the ability to help organize, motivate, and guide people; create a vision; create a mission; and get excited about it.”