MIT graduate Kenan E. Sahin surprised even himself Saturday night when he announced that he was donating $100 million to his alma mater.
The gift is the largest single donation in MIT's history and one of the largest ever in higher education.
Dr. Sahin (SB 1963, PhD), 58, founder of Kenan Systems Corp. of Cambridge, MA was supposed to be in China on Saturday. The trip was canceled, so the former MIT student and faculty member went to MIT for the day's programs, gala dinner and ball to celebrate the launch of MIT's $1.5 billion capital campaign.
At 9:15pm, he told President Charles Vest he had something to say to the 500 people assembled for dinner amidst a sound-and-light show of gossamer sails and technological artifacts in Rockwell Cage.
Dr. Vest introduced him, saying, "I really don't know what he's going to say." Dr. Sahin smiled shyly and said, "He really doesn't know what I'm going to say. Up until half an hour ago, I didn't know what I was going to say... Sometimes, spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment conversations have deep, deep consequences."
A native of Turkey, Dr. Sahin recalled that while he was an engineering student at Robert College in Istanbul, he had a chance conversation with the late Harold Hazen, dean of graduate studies at MIT who was interim president at Robert College. Dr. Hazen advised him to attend MIT. "Little did I know how that would shape my life. I can't tell you how much I have benefited from this institution," Dr. Sahin said.
The top student in his engineering class, he went on to attend MIT and the Sloan School, earning a bachelor's degree in 1963 and a PhD in 1969. After several years of teaching and conducting research at MIT, Harvard, and the University of Massachusetts, he left academic life in 1982 to start Kenan Systems with an initial investment of $1,000.
The company, which developed one of the key productivity advances in computer software, provides software products for billing, customer care, order management and decision support to single- and multi-service communications and energy companies worldwide. It was merged into Lucent Technologies for Lucent common stock, worth approximately $1.48 billion at the time. Dr. Sahin is now president of the Kenan Systems division of Lucent Technologies and vice president of software technology at Bell Labs.
Dr. Sahin said he is sometimes asked how it feels to be a billionaire.
"I wouldn't know," he said, "because I don't consider myself one. I'm just a guardian. In that spirit, I want to lay on the table $100 million."
There was a stunned silence, and then the audience erupted with cheers and applause for three minutes. Dr. Vest gave him a hug and then Dr. Sahin continued.
"My mission is not yet done. I am aiming to take some of the very best ideas from MIT and my experiences and use them at Lucent Technologies and its Bell Laboratories."
Dr. Sahin named former Presidents Paul Gray and Howard Johnson (a former member of Kenan Systems' board of directors), President Vest and Alex d'Arbeloff (SB 1949), chairman of the MIT Corporation, to constitute a council committee to advise him on how best to designate the $100 million to best advance the educational and research goals of MIT.
Raymond Stata (SB 1957), founder of Analog Devices and chairman of MIT's Campaign, thanked Dr. Sahin for "this magnificent gift."
Mr. d'Arbeloff, founder of Teradyne, said, "Kenan is the epitome of the kind of leadership that we hope to encourage in our students. Not only does he create new institutions, he helps to strengthen those that helped him along the way. We are deeply grateful for this extraordinary gift and for his confidence in our future."
President Vest said, "Kenan Sahin's extraordinary gift to MIT is in the finest spirit of personal philanthropy to support excellence in higher education. Kenan has experienced MIT in every dimension -- as a student, as a faculty member, as an alumnus and as a trustee.
"This is a gift from the heart, and one that represents a belief in the importance of what MIT is and will be. It stands as a reminder of how much MIT and this country benefit from enormously talented students and faculty from all over the world."
"I have known Kenan for nearly 40 years, since his days as a student at the Sloan School," President Emeritus Johnson said. "I would say that he is the classic American success story. He was always interested in moving beyond what most people expected, even what most people imagined. His talents were matched by a kind of daring and tenacity that has led to remarkable success. And yet, there is a kind of modesty and quiet dignity about him. I am not surprised -- but am certainly delighted -- that he has sought to deepen and build the qualities of MIT that meant so much to him."
The gift is the largest ever received by MIT and one of the largest in higher education.
"Kenan Sahin's gift will transform MIT in many ways," said Barbara Stowe, vice president for resource development. "His generosity and that of many other alumni/ae so early in our campaign will signal a call to others that will forever change MIT's base of private support."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 10, 1999.