Early in 1983, administrators of the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois decided to assemble a proposal for establishing a dramatically new venture in university-based research. The first meeting leading to what later became the Beckman Proposal was held in the office of university Vice President Morton W . Weir. Also attending were Lewis W. Barron, who directed the university's Foundation, Chancellor John E. Cribbet, Vice Chancellor Edwin K. Goldwasser, and Vice Chancellor Theodore L. Brown.
Following discussions with key campus administrators and professors in the university's Center for Advanced Study, two committees were appointed in May 1983. One of these committees, chaired originally by Gregory E. Stillman of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and later by Karl Hess of the same department, consisted mainly of faculty members from engineering and the physical sciences. The second committee, under the chairmanship of William T. Greenough of the Department of Psychology, was asked to develop a program statement for an array of research spanning the life sciences and the behavioral sciences, extending from molecular biological sciences to the neurosciences and cognitive sciences.
The two committees presented their reports to campus administration in September 1983. Over the next several months, these thorough and comprehensive documents were drawn on by campus administration, in collaboration with Vice President Weir and the University of Illinois Foundation, to produce a proposal that was submitted to Arnold Beckman in fall 1984.
Beckman's gift of $40 million was announced at the annual meeting of the University of Illinois Foundation in October 1985. The Illinois legislature, in its fall 1985 session, appropriated $10 million toward the cost of the building. in addition, the university and the state of Illinois pledged to support the continued operations and maintenance of the institute.
As donors of the largest gift ever made to a public university at that time, Arnold and Mabel Beckman were, quite naturally, eager to see the planning for the institute move along as rapidly a possibly. In keeping with their wishes, the university acted quickly to choose an architectural firm.
The selection of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls (SH&G), a Detroit architectural engineering firm experienced in the design of research facilities, was announced on December 10, 1985. In its proposal, SH&G indicated a demanding schedule that would lead to the completion of the facility by the end of 1988. Close cooperation and exceptional commitment from all involved were required to meet the schedule for designing and building a large and complex facility such as the Beckman Institute.
In contrast to the usual procedure in planning a major facility, the Beckman Institute was without detailed building program when the architectural firm was selected. Accordingly, the first task was to establish a program on which to based the building design. The Greenough and Hess committees were reactivated, with enlarged faculty groups representing candidate research programs to establish the space needs of research efforts. That planning process, carried out in only three months, required and received great imagination and patience from the participating faculty members.
With the program plan in hand, the building was designed in spring 1986; design development came to a close with presentation of the building design to the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois in July 1986. Site clearance and work on the foundation began in early December 1986; construction was substantially complete by December 1988.
Arnold and Mabel Beckman's generosity has provided the university with a rare opportunity to establish a new and important direction for university-based research. Continued commitment is required to meet the challenges of the Beckman Institute.
The Beckman Institute differs from most other interdisciplinary research institutes in the significantly broader scope of its programs. The physical design features are intended to enhance its mission as a center for cross-disciplinary scholarship among researchers in the biological and behavioral sciences, the physical sciences, and engineering. The 313,000 sq ft includes the major architectural features of a laboratory wing, an office and electronics wing, a public atrium, and a tower. One of the most important elements in stimulating interaction between researchers is the opportunity for frequent, easy contact. The institute proves many spaces that an serve as gathering places for researchers in groups varying in size from a few up to 100 people. In the early 1990s, electrical and computer engineering faculty members in the Beckman Institute conduct research in computer vision, imaging, computations electrons, scanning/tunneling/microscopy, optical systems, and neural networks.