Phyllis M. Taylor

Tulane University announced plans Monday to create a new center focusing on social innovation and entrepreneurship, using a nearly $15 million gift from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation.

The $14.5 million donation from Phyllis Taylor, the foundation’s chairwoman and a member of Tulane’s board, will go toward establishing the Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking. Faculty, students and researchers from a variety of disciplines will work together at the center to tackle problems facing society in areas like the environment, education and health care.

The donation is the largest the foundation has ever awarded, Taylor said in an interview.

The center plans to add faculty who specialize in “design thinking,” the process of evaluating efficient solutions to everyday problems. They’ll work with other Tulane faculty to develop undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate courses.

The center also will invite “Taylor Social Innovation Fellows” to be visiting professors at the university.

The center’s premise is based largely on Tulane’s Grand Challenge competition, which offered a $1 million prize this year for finding a solution to combat “dead zones” in lakes and oceans across the world. The prize money for the contest came from the Taylor Foundation.

“You can develop projects, but you can also develop solutions to problems,” Taylor said.

She said the concept for the center came to her while she attended the Aspen Ideas Festival, headed by New Orleans native Walter Isaacson, and she pitched it to a receptive Scott Cowen, Tulane’s former president.

Taylor said the center has the potential to “expand to infinitely greater heights.”

Tackling issues at the Taylor Center likely will involve reaching across disciplines at Tulane, such as to the law or business schools, to handle different aspects of solving a problem, she said.

“It’s going to eliminate the concept of a university functioning in silos,” she said. “They will work to collaborate together, and that is not only faculty but students in the undergraduate and the graduate levels and the community as a whole, because I think it will be critical to have the citizens and the organizations of New Orleans involved in this as well.”

That notion also has been at the forefront of new Tulane President Michael Fitts’ mind. Colleagues lauded the Philadelphia native’s vision for integrating the law curriculum at the top-ranked Penn Law, where he was the dean before coming to Tulane this year, with other studies at the University of Pennsylvania, a private Ivy League school.

Fitts has said he’s interested in applying the same strategy at Tulane.

“So much of confronting problems in society requires you to think across categories,” he said in an interview over the summer. “They don’t come neatly packaged. You need to know something about engineering, something about business and, maybe, literally something about philosophy. Tulane has the ability to really be a leader in sort of focusing on areas and fields where problems cross, like energy and the environment.”

Taylor said the concept for the new center resonates especially well at Tulane, which has emphasized community service by students since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.

“This is why I thought Tulane was such a perfect fit for this. They’re already involved post-Katrina with the community service aspect, and they’ve developed this entrepreneurship,” she said. “So as we go forward, I think this center can help. It’ll not only have solutions to programs and projects and products, but it will also develop leadership.”

She added: “As we go forward and technology takes a greater hold on our young people, I think this will be a great way for them to be exposed to people and people-to-people problems, and to realize that not everything is solved with machines.”

For now, the center will be located at the Donna and Paul Flower Hall for Research and Innovation and in the nearby School of Architecture. “What the long-term future holds, I could only guess,” Taylor said. “If this takes on and grows to the proportion that I would hope, then it may well be that it would need a whole floor of a building or maybe a whole building.”

Although the $14.5 million donation to Tulane is the foundation’s largest gift, Taylor gave LSU $15 million from her family’s estate to help pay for extensive renovations to Patrick F. Taylor Hall, which broke ground recently and is expected to be finished by 2017.

The foundation is named after her husband, Patrick Taylor, a New Orleans oil tycoon and billionaire philanthropist who died in 2004.

Patrick Taylor operated Taylor Energy Co. in New Orleans and at the time of his death was Louisiana’s wealthiest resident. In 1989, he created the Taylor Plan, a forerunner to the state’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students tuition program, which helps Louisiana residents afford to attend college. He helped endow the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, the Audubon Zoo and the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.