Pitt Physics Professor and Dean Uses Novel Formula to Endow a Fellowship

Peter KoehlerPrior to joining Pitt, Peter Koehler worked for 19 years as a particle physicist at Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi Lab near Chicago. He came to the University of Pittsburgh in 1986 as professor of physics and astronomy and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, now the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

After serving as dean for 12 years, he devoted himself full-time to teaching undergraduate students, first in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and, for the last five years, in the University Honors College.

Like all teachers, Peter believes the students he guided during these years will be his most lasting legacy. But he also wanted to express his appreciation to the University of Pittsburgh for giving him the opportunity to teach. His experience in the Department of Physics and Astronomy led him to want to endow a fellowship for pre-doctoral graduate students.

“A faculty member from MIT told me years ago that each of their incoming graduate students receives a fellowship. At Pitt we can only offer them either a teaching assistantship or a research assistantship,” said Peter, who retired in 2017.

A graduate assistantship usually involves duties such as teaching recitations or working in a lab, while a fellowship allows the recipient to focus fulltime on doing research or writing the dissertation.

“If you want to do something that will be of long-time benefit to the University, a fellowship would really help.”

“When we are trying to attract the best students in the world and our peer institutions are offering fellowships while we can only offer assistantships, we are not really competitive,” he said.

As he thought about implementing such a gift, he initially considered funding it out of his retirement account but ultimately decided against that because he needed to make sure the income from the retirement account would cover his living expenses. The alternative was to designate a gift of a fixed amount in his estate plan; but that would require periodic revisions in the document whenever the amount required by Pitt for endowing a fellowship changed. So Thomas Golightly, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Senior Executive Director of Development, suggested a novel plan:

“We realized that graduate student stipends increase over time, so Peter designated a dollar amount for his fellowship in his estate plan based upon the stipends at the time,” Tom said. “In addition, he pledged to make annual gifts of a fixed amount during his lifetime to cover the inflationary increase. Those payments would accumulate and appreciate in value, ultimately augmenting the designated gift from his estate to ensure that the final corpus of his fellowship gift would fully support a graduate student when awarded.”

Peter Koehler (center) with the two 2016 winners of the Peter F.M. Koehler Academic Achievement Awards given out by the Department of Physics & Astronomy: Wesley Roberts (left, winner in the Sophomore/Junior category) and Reginald Caginalp (right, winner in the Junior/Senior category).
Peter Koehler (center) with the two 2016 winners of the Peter F.M. Koehler Academic Achievement Awards given out by the Department of Physics & Astronomy: Wesley Roberts (left, winner in the Sophomore/Junior category) and Reginald Caginalp (right, winner in the Junior/Senior category).

This funding approach appealed to Peter, and in 2011 he created the Peter F.M. Koehler Predoctoral Fellowship in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Noting that the need for additional endowed fellowships exists across the University, Peter hopes there may be other professors and/or alumni who might be interested in using a similar approach.

“Aren’t your expectations that after you take care of your family and yourself, there will be something left over at the end of your days?  Well, what do you want to do with it?” Peter asked. “If you want to do something that will be of long-time benefit to the University and can be within your means, a fellowship would really help.”

An added benefit to this type of plan is that the annual gift could qualify the donor as a Chancellor’s Circle level benefactor.

This fellowship is not Peter’s only endowed gift to the University. During the years he taught undergraduates, he came to understand the importance of encouraging promising students. To accomplish that, he endowed the Peter F.M. Koehler Fund in Physics and Astronomy in 2001, which provides funds for two $500 prizes each year to promising undergraduate students in the hope that such recognition at an early stage will build self-confidence in the winners.

“The investment is doing well, so I’m thinking it’s time to increase the prize amount to keep up with inflation,” Peter said.

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