Building and Bonding – James Donlan ’85, economics

Published: Jan 25, 2010

If you marvel at how well UMBC’s buildings have been maintained over the last decade or so, you can point to the hard work of James Donlan ’85, economics, who until recently served as the university’s director of facilities management.

Portrait of James Donlan outside, wearing a blue polo with bright green trees behind him.
James Donlan, ’85

In that position, Donlan supervised the maintenance of 3.6 million square feet in UMBC’s 49 buildings. He also guided the university through some of its most challenging renovations of major buildings and constructions of new buildings in the past 15 years.

And while his departure means the university has big work boots to fill, Donlan is tackling a challenge that will call on his organizational skills, and the experience he has gleaned from his years at UMBC and his experiences as a colonel in the United States Marine Corps Reserves: leading a project designed to combat the deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that are a favored weapon of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Donlan says that he is sad to leave UMBC. “But the opportunity presented itself to work on a project with a significant impact on saving lives,” he says. “That made the decision easier.”
It was Donlan’s work on a recent tour of duty as a Marine combat engineering officer in the Marine Corps’ War Fighting Lab in Quantico, VA, that led him to his new position. The lab, he says, “finds scientific and technological solutions to problems the Marines are having in combat.” The goals of such work, he observes, is to find ways to “harden vehicles and protect people.”
Donlan’s work in that group led him to participation in a joint working group on the deadly explosives culled from all branches of the armed forces by the Department of Defense. “It is sort of a Manhattan Project to predict and prevent IEDs,” says Donlan of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO.
After Donlan’s tour was up, he was contacted by CenTauri Solutions – a defense contractor which had won an $11.7 million bid with the Pentagon and JIEDDO to work on new techniques to detect IEDs with aerial electromagnetic sensors. The group recruited Donlan as a project director on the new effort, dubbed “Yellow Jacket.” He began work on the project in the autumn.
On his tour of active duty in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 (including a stint in Fallujah), Donlan says that he “encountered multiple IEDs on a daily basis, either disarming them or finding them.” Helping his fellow solders identify and neutralize the threat, he adds, proved a strong lure to sign up for Yellow Jacket.
Donlan’s tasks at UMBC may not have taken on the life or death quality of his work as a Marine, but his steady efforts as the university erected new structures and renovated key buildings were a crucial element in UMBC’s growth. Donlan succeeded the late Richard Butler in 1994, first as associate director and later as director of facilities management.
In Donlan’s tenure, UMBC constructed the Information Technology and Engineering (ITE) building, the Public Policy building, the Physics building and a number of new residential buildings. “In the 1990s, there was construction fence everywhere,” Donlan recalls. “As I look back at it now, it seems like we were building everywhere.”
Yet Donlan feels that UMBC has retained a lot of what made it special for him as a student in the 1980s. “The campus has doubled in size,” he observes. “But it still feels small. It’s big enough that it has all of the amenities of a larger school, but it’s still small enough that it feels like a family.” (Indeed, his son Justin Donlan ’11 is a student in UMBC’s Honors College.)
Out of all his accomplishments at UMBC, Donlan points to the renovations of the biology and chemistry buildings as the most satisfying. “The biology and chemistry buildings were two of the toughest jobs we did,” he says. “We did both of them in occupied settings.”
The chemistry renovation posed vexing problems for Donlan and his team to solve.
“We were building a building on top of a building,” Donlan recalls. “The building was built like a tank. The air handling systems and everything else were in the basement. At [the time of the building’s construction], that was great idea. It worked well. But when you’ve got to replace those systems, there’s no way to get back in there. So we actually had to take the mechanical rooms that were in the basement and put them on the roof.”
Sensitivity to the important research that was happening in both buildings was also a key element in both successful renovations, Donlan says, because any mistakes “could have a devastating impact on researchers’ careers.”

— Richard Byrne ’86


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