Architect Randy Howder, B.S. Arch ‘99, and real estate agent Neal Conatser, share a goal of making college education more accessible to a broader range of learners — and have pledged $2.75 million to support the next generation of leaders in the built environment at University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
The planned gift follows an initial contribution made in 2021 to establish the Howder-Conatser Architecture Scholarship Fund to support students in the bachelor of science in architecture program at Taubman College.
Though Howder and his husband Conatser come from different backgrounds — one from generations of college graduates, the other the first in his family to attend college — their shared experience of attending college gave them a new perspective on the world and an understanding that diversity of thought and experience make for a stronger society.
“Education is the answer to a lot of what we see going wrong in the world, whether its income disparity, understanding climate change, how we transition to a different kind of economy, or how thought and reason can overcome bad actors and disinformation,” says Howder. “The best way to positively impact the future is to give more people access to a high-quality education.”
Scholarship awards from the Howder-Conatser Fund support students who are the first in their families to attend college and those with financial need.
“Bringing a diversity of people into the architecture profession changes those individuals and the whole profession as we get more diverse voices contributing to the discipline. People begin to see themselves reflected in our cities and buildings and to feel more included and part of the conversation,” says Howder.
“As a principal at Gensler and a leader in our alumni community, Randy promotes excellence not only by example but also through mentoring and civic engagement,” says Taubman College Dean Jonathan Massey. “With this gift, he and Neal extend that generosity to the next generation of Taubman College students. We thank them for ensuring that first-generation students and those with financial need can join us in advancing architectural knowledge and practice.”
Both Howder and Conatser have been successful in their respective careers. Howder remarks he owes much of his success to “the foundation grown at Taubman – the first kernel of [his] career.”
“The initial years I spent as an undergrad were so impactful to the rest of my career,” says Howder. “Making connections with people that are strong to this day, the shared experience of going through studio together, the intensity of self-discovery, the inspiration of seeing my ideas become a reality – Taubman provided me with a great foundation for challenging things and exploring new ideas.”
Howder extended his connection to the college when he joined the Taubman College Alumni Council in 2019 and served as the chair of the Outreach Committee. He transitions to the Dean’s Advisory Council in spring 2023. He sees Taubman College embracing and advancing the inclusiveness of education and the profession.
“I have been impressed by how bold some of the students are and how the college has pushed forward diversity in a profession that historically has not been diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation,” says Howder. “Students being a part of that kind of diversity makes their work more interesting, and they’re more aware and sensitive to some of the challenges facing the world, and it’s showing up in their work which is exciting.”
“Architecture is foundational in shaping society and can help address some of our challenges. Many of the students I’ve met bring an awareness of our societal challenges and a willingness to address them. They value working to solve some of our systematic issues,” says Howder.
The tenacity and social consciousness of Taubman students are one reason Howder and Conatser established their scholarship fund. They chose planned giving as a way to support the college and the broader university as an important source of solutions for the future.
“It was the right thing for us as we were thinking about the long term. It’s never too early to think about what happens after you’re gone,” says Howder. “It's gratifying to know our estate will live on with future architects and designers who will make the world a better place.”
Howder and Conatser challenge others to consider how they support the college and the profession as they become more successful.
“There are a lot of worthy causes, and our planned gift doesn’t preclude us from supporting those causes. It allows us to explicitly direct our giving tied to my experience as a Taubman student and alum,” says Howder.
Howder also hopes alums and donors realize gifts and support of all types and sizes make an impact on Taubman students. “Giving back doesn’t always have to come as a large monetary amount. It can be volunteer time that helps graduating students find a job, being a guest critic at a studio, or opening your office to students during spring break. No gift is too small. Give what you can when you can but stay connected to the college. Increasing the cohesiveness of the alumni network makes us all more valuable to the outside world and the profession.”
Howder is a practicing architect and a Co-Managing Director and Principal of Gensler’s San Francisco office. He focuses on transforming clients' organizations through new approaches to design, research, and experience. With a background in strategic consulting and workplace design initiatives for a diverse range of industry-leading clients, Howder is always questioning how spaces work while striving to find ways to make them more effective and improve people’s lives. He has been a featured speaker at several international design conferences. He has been a regular contributor to HuffPost, writing about design and urban issues in the Bay Area and beyond. The San Francisco Chronicle, Interior Design, Metropolis, Fast Company, Forbes, and The Economist have published Howder’s work. In 2015, he was named one of the San Francisco Business Times’ 40 Under 40.
Conatser is a top real estate agent with Compass in the San Francisco Bay Area. He built the foundation of his practice on compassion, responsiveness, and a laser focus, which sets him apart and enables his mission to be an exceptional advisor, fiduciary, and advocate. His collaborative and constructive nature has earned him the trust and respect of his industry peers. Publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, and Oakland Magazine, have featured his real estate commentary. With an educational and professional background in the physical sciences, engineering, and project management, Conatser brings a wealth of knowledge to fully support his clients and empower them to make decisions truly in their best interest.