Generosity of Frank and Marilyn Hanna Spurs Growth of Department of Geological Sciences

  • View overlooking Long Valley Caldera in eastern California. Blue sky overhead with pine trees in the foreground and the caldera in the mid ground.

    Long Valley Caldera in eastern California.

Just as seismic forces have reshaped landscapes, so, too, has a benefactor helped to transform the Department of Geological Sciences at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). For nearly two decades, Marilyn Hanna’s consistent and thoughtful giving has enabled the department to modernize the curriculum, maintain expensive equipment, and provide substantially more student support, all of which have combined to elevate the department’s prestige.

“The extraordinary commitment that Marilyn has made to the Department of Geological Sciences enables professors to focus on teaching and research and students to focus on learning,” said CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison. “The students graduating from the Department of Geological Sciences are in high demand, and their impact upon the region and beyond is significant.”

Marilyn was born and raised in West Los Angeles, and considered the Santa Monica Mountains as her “backyard.” The story of her generosity begins with her late husband, Frank, whose CSUN ties were strong. Frank was a 1966 graduate with a B.S. in geology, and he became the geology department technician while earning a master’s degree in geography. He later taught a combination of lower- and upper-division geology courses at CSUN for 11 years. Marilyn and Frank met when she took his geology extension course — Marilyn was drawn to his enthusiasm for teaching and passion for the outdoors.

During the 13 years they were married, Marilyn got so hooked on the field central to her husband’s life that she began visiting Frank and his students during their annual Fall Field Frolic geologic camping trips, something she loved and has continued to do with CSUN students.
“We’ve been to the Sierras to study volcanics and mineral deposits, and a couple of years ago we went to Idaho for the total eclipse,” said Marilyn. “I’ve gone to places where they were doing research, for instance, the Banning Pass, where they studied the earthquake fault zones,” said Marilyn.

In 2003, Frank died unexpectedly at the age of 61. In his will, he established the Frank and Marilyn Hanna Field Studies Endowment, which supports field studies projects, introductory geology course field trips, and summer field geology tuition. Marilyn has steadily built on this initial donation, with her most recent gifts in 2019 and 2013 totaling $2.75 million.

The impact of this giving to the department, the smallest in the College of Science and Mathematics at CSUN (there are about 100 undergraduate and graduate students combined), has been profound. The 2019 donation provides substantial reinforcement in numerous key areas. The new Hanna Summer Student Research Endowment designates funds for independent student summer research.

The first donation, the Frank and Marilyn Hanna Field Studies Endowment, received a big boost, too.

“The summer field geology class is four weeks long, with eight hours a day of hands-on field work,” explained Dick Heermance, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences. “It’s required in the program, and it’s an incredibly important aspect of the major. Being away from their jobs for that long presents a financial hardship for many students. The Field Studies endowment alleviates that stress.“

Jerry Stinner, dean of the College of Science and Math, said that in his 15 years at the helm, he has never seen a gift have such an impact on a department.

“The Department of Geological Sciences at CSUN was already very strong and had an excellent reputation in the CSU system and among employers, but with Marilyn’s contributions, the caliber of faculty, sophisticated instrumentation, cutting-edge research, and dedicated teaching and mentoring are simply incredible,” he said.

Heermance concurred. “Her giving sets our department apart because almost every student benefits,” he said.

He added that the Hanna Graduate Fellow Endowment, in particular, is a remarkable gift. This merit-based, 2-year fellowship covers a student’s tuition and provides a stipend each year.

“With this we know we’ll have two graduate students on campus who are fully supported and can focus entirely on school, without worrying about a job or money woes,” he said. He added that it also is also an asset because it draws top talent, enabling the department to offer competitive packages to graduate students considering other options.

Doug Yule, the geological sciences department chair from 2007-2008 and again from 2015-2016, has witnessed firsthand the evolution of the department. “Marilyn’s contribution to the graduate studies has definitely served as a recruitment tool, and it has transformed our graduate program,” said Yule.

Second-year graduate student and Hanna fellow Anthony Downey, whose primary focus is glacial retreat in the Sierra Nevada 20,000 years ago, attested to the strength of the program.

“With the fellowship, I was able to get research funding for the second year — I didn’t have to teach, and I could focus on research,” he said.

Marilyn’s generosity has also enabled him to attend school without squeezing in a job. He stressed though, that Marilyn’s backing is more than financial; she is truly interested in the students and their work. “I got to spend time with her on a road trip to the Eastern Sierra, and every year she attends our year-end presentation [at which students present research on posters],” said Downey. “ It’s a great honor to show her what her funding has gone toward.”

Both the current and former chair emphasized the need to remain relevant in geological studies; over the past decade the undergraduate curriculum underwent a major and much-needed revision.

“When I arrived at the department,” said Yule, “it was much more of a field-centered program — kind of a one-size-fits all. Now it’s a field and lab analysis program, with new classes and a restructuring of the major to make it more accessible to the 21st-century student body.”

Marilyn championed their efforts, not just monetarily, but in a greater global sense. “She looks at the big picture and recognizes that a well-educated geological workforce is needed for society to function,” said Yule.

Robert Gunsalus, vice president for University Relations and Advancement and president of the CSUN Foundation, applauded Marilyn’s commitment to CSUN students and investment in their futures.

“Marilyn’s generous investment of time and resources is transformative,” he said. “This level of philanthropy means that CSUN can compete with other top-notch geology programs across the nation.”

With the pandemic still a formidable global presence, the Department of Geological Sciences has temporarily halted certain activities — this past spring the poster presentations were cancelled and the annual Fall Field Frolic, scheduled this year for June Lake, CA has been cancelled as well. The department will eventually revisit plans to carve out a new, novel program, a B.A. in Geological Sciences that would marry the humanities and sciences in a holistic way — one that educates stewards for the environment. Pandemic or not, Marilyn’s optimism remains intact, as does her hope for future field trips with the students and faculty.

After all, says Marilyn, “It makes perfect sense for geologists to be outside kicking the rocks.”