The venture capitalist John Doerr and his wife Ann have donated more than a billion dollars to fund a new school at Stanford University, the university announced yesterday (May 4). The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability will launch in September of this year and focus on addressing interdisciplinary solutions to climate change. Several other donors contributed a combined $590 million, giving the school a starting endowment of $1.69 billion.
The $1.1 billion gift is the largest amount ever given to found a single school, and the second largest gift ever awarded to an academic institution, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which tracks philanthropic donations in academia. Only former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s 2018 endowment of $1.8 billion for student financial aid to Johns Hopkins University exceeds it.
Doerr’s wealth is estimated at roughly $11 billion, stemming from his investments in companies such as Amazon, Google, and Slack. The Times reports that Doerr was first spurred to support climate change initiatives after watching Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. A year later, Gore joined Doerr’s venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins. Doerr has invested in several clean energy technologies—several of which failed in the 2008 financial crisis—and last year published a book about climate change. “We’ve got to be clear about the problem,” he tells the Times. “I believe this is a problem of scale that needs far greater ambition, urgency and excellence deployed against it.”
To begin, roughly 90 Stanford faculty—including all of those currently in the Stanford School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences—will move from existing departments to the new school, according to the press release, with a goal of hiring an additional 60 faculty over the next decade. The school’s focus will center around eight fields, The Washington Post reports, including climate change, sustainable cities, energy technology, and human society and behavior. A “sustainability accelerator” within the school will promote solutions by identifying and supporting the development of high-potential technologies and policies.
“These gifts will help Stanford bring its full effort to bear on solving the most complex problems in climate and sustainability, and on training the next generation of students who are eager and driven to address these challenges,” Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne says in the press release.
Stanford University mechanical engineer Arun Majumdar has been named as the inaugural dean of the school. Majumdar has advised the Obama and Biden administration on energy issues. The school will be headquartered in what university officials call the Sustainability Commons, which will include two new flagship buildings, the existing Green Earth Sciences Research Building, and the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building.
Not everyone has responded positively to the news. Speaking to the Times, David Callahan, author of The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, expressed disbelief that gifting money to an already “rich university” would do much to change things in the short term. “It’s nice that he’s parting with his money, but that billion dollars could be better spent trying to move this up on the scale of public opinion. Until the public sees this as a top tier issue, politicians are not going to act.”
David Ho, a climate scientist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, shared on Twitter that he also thought the money could have been better invested, saying “I’d like to see someone give $1.1 billion to state universities and [historically Black colleges and universities] to study climate change.”
In addition, there has been some blowback about the school’s decision to partner with fossil fuel companies looking to invest in clean energy. Stanford has so far resisted calls by students to divest its endowments from such companies—a process that other universities, including Harvard University and Dartmouth College, have undertaken in recent years, according to Inside Higher Ed. Majumdar tells the Times that he is open to collaborating with companies “that want to diversify and be part of the solutions.” (Majumdar is the Jay Precourt professor at Stanford University, an endowed chair named after a businessman who made his fortune in the oil industry.)
Jason Bordoff, a cofounding dean of the Columbia Climate School, tells the Post that when his school was created in 2020, “the vision for success was that years from now there would be numerous schools focused on climate change, and we’d look back and wonder how we ever thought we could tackle a problem of this complexity without universities making the strongest commitment they can to climate action through entire schools focused on the problem. . . . We need all hands on deck right now in climate philanthropy and climate scholarship, and John Doerr’s historic gift is an extraordinary commitment to that work.”