Bringing history to life: Penn State alumni create Liberal Arts professorship

Susan Burlingame
February 06, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Using cause and effect, biographies, role-playing and more, a high school teacher brought the subject of history to life for Donna Oliver, a retired attorney and 1967 alumna of the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts. “Though I didn’t ultimately earn my degree in the field, history became a lifelong passion of mine because of one great teacher,” said Oliver.

Donna and Bill Oliver

Penn State alumni and longtime benefactors Donna and Bill Oliver share a love of the outdoors, shown here on a cycling trip in Puglia, Italy. The couple recently created a professorship in the College of the Liberal Arts.

IMAGE: Bill Oliver

More than a half-century later, Oliver and her husband, William (Bill), a 1967 alumnus of Penn State’s Smeal College of Business and the retired CEO of Oliver Sprinkler Company (now Oliver Fire Protection and Security), have brought that passion full circle by establishing the William L. and Donna F. Oliver-McCourtney Professorship in the Department of History.

Longtime benefactors of both the Smeal College of Business and the College of the Liberal Arts through scholarships and an estate commitment supporting the Paterno Fellows Program, the Olivers said they were motivated in part by the Tracy and Ted McCourtney Endowed Professorship Matching Gift Program. Established by the McCourtneys with a $3 million gift in 2016, the program matches donors’ $500,000 contribution, creating a $1 million professorship that can immediately be awarded.  

Declaring that “an exciting professor makes all the difference” and lamenting that not as many students choose history as their major today, the Olivers said they wanted to give the department the means to recruit a “phenomenal” leader who can ignite students’ passion for the subject. The holder of the Oliver-McCourtney Professorship in the Department of History will be able to use endowment funding for research, education and travel expenses, graduate and undergraduate student support, and more.   

“The history department is deeply honored by the generous gift from Donna and Bill Oliver, as well as the McCourtneys, for this incredible opportunity,” said Michael Kulikowski, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Classics and head of the Department of History. “The really exciting thing about this position is that it will allow us to look around at the entire range of senior historians working in the discipline today and recruit the very best scholar out there, regardless of their specialty. We’re going to be looking for someone who will complement our existing areas of strength and also draw together regions or time periods that could really flourish together with the right faculty member linking them. This is the kind of opportunity that very few history departments ever get, and it’s a chance to raise our national profile and the good work we do in the classroom to a whole new level.”

Born in New Mexico, Donna Oliver traveled the world as a member of a military family. They moved to Pennsylvania for Donna’s senior year of high school. According to Donna, one trip to Penn State’s University Park campus for a football game was apparently all it took to convince her to apply to Penn State. “It was the only school I applied to,” she said. After graduation, Donna stayed involved with her alma mater, often engaging with the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and the Richards Civil War Center, both housed in the College of the Liberal Arts. She currently serves as a member of the College of the Liberal Arts’ Development Council.

Bill Oliver was more familiar with the University, having moved from his original home in New Jersey to a suburb of Philadelphia when he was in the sixth grade. His sister earned her degree at Penn State, and Bill had visited campus a number of times before deciding to apply. “It’s really our love of Penn State and what it does for so many people that helped us decide to make this gift,” said Bill.

“We hope the history department finds someone who can make history come alive for students,” concluded Donna. “History is what makes us who we are, and good professors can remind us of that.”

The William L. and Donna F. Oliver-McCourtney Professorship helps Penn State as it seeks to fulfill its mission for a new era of rapid change and global connections. "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence" focuses on three key imperatives: Open Doors, Create Transformative Experiences, and Impact the World. Through teaching, research, and outreach, and because of generous alumni and friends, the College of the Liberal Arts is able to offer scholarships to deserving students, create life-shaping experiences, and make a difference in the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more, visit

Last Updated February 28, 2019