Behind $1.1 billion donation, Stanford will open School for Sustainability

After several of years of planning, it's launching just in time to tackle a foreboding climate crisis.

Even with cutting-edge research and innovation occurring daily at Stanford University, it has been almost seven decades since it launched a new school. But that’s about to change thanks to the generous support of several philanthropists who are putting their capital behind Stanford’s mission to address the environment, including a transformational, $1.1 billion donation from venture capitalist John Doerr and wife Ann Doerr, the chain of the Khan Academy.

Stanford’s new Doerr School for Sustainability coming in September will combine the strength of its current institutes on the environment and energy with newly formed academic departments and an accelerator to help tackle climate change through innovation and public policy. A portion of the $1.7 billion in total donations will go toward the construction of two LEED Platinum facilities to form its own “Sustainability Commons” that will be paired with two existing buildings and connected by a walkway with a rooftop garden.

The changing climate has become front of mind for Stanford and for leaders across higher education, with many signed on to Second Nature’s Climate Leadership Commitment to do their part to foster sustainability. According to data from the nonprofit International Rescue Committee, more than 40 million people are facing hunger now and 200 million may be displaced in less than 30 years because of global warming. Meanwhile, the United States has done more to harm the world with emissions than any other nation, so initiatives like the one at Stanford are needed and very much in the wheelhouse of an institution with broad reach and resources.

“Stanford is making a bold, actionable and enduring commitment to tackling humanity’s greatest challenge, and we have a deep conviction in its ambition and abilities,” the Doerrs said in a statement. “Today’s real and pressing challenges—not least, solving our climate crisis—require that knowledge be channeled toward the building of practical, implementable solutions. With a deep track record in groundbreaking scholarship and impact and a critical mass of subject experts and innovators, Stanford is perfectly positioned to make a measurable difference in climate and sustainability challenges. This is the decisive decade, and we must act with full speed and scale.”

Stanford plans to hire 90 additional faculty members in the short term and 60 more over the next 10 years as it builds out the school, backed by another donation from Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang and wife Akiko Yamazaki. Those who are already involved in its School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences or work in the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy will simply shift their roles into the new sustainability school. Officials said they also are creating a separate institute on societies that will be focused on economic and political impacts.

“Growing our faculty is critical as we are creating wholly new departments, expanding areas of scholarship, and ensuring that diverse voices and experiences are informing our scholarship,” Stanford Provost Persis Drell said. “I’m tremendously grateful to Akiko and Jerry for enabling us to move quickly on our ambitious hiring goal, which will be essential to addressing the full gamut of climate and sustainability challenges.”

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The school will be led by new dean Arun Majumdar, a professor and former co-director at the Precourt Institute who chairs the advisory board for the U.S. Secretary of Energy and was formerly Vice President of Energy for Google. He also had higher ed stops at Arizona State University, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Among his many goals are to build partnerships, increase research and innovation, and maintain focus on planetary change. “As is often said, we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children,” Majumdar said. “We must create a future in which humans and nature thrive together.”

Stanford is among an elite group of institutions that have dedicated large initiatives to climate change, including Columbia University’s Columbia Climate School, Yale University’s School of the Environment and Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Many more address the topic head on through curriculum, forums or institutes on campuses, including Harvard’s Center for the Environment and the University of Maine’s School of Earth and Climate Sciences.

Stanford’s new school will be as all-encompassing and intense as it gets, with the gift from the Doerrs helping to boost the number of “graduate students and postdoctoral fellows—tomorrow’s leading climate and sustainability scientists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and advocates.” This idea came to fruition after years of planning, including the submission of 2,800 proposals around sustainability, with President Marc Tessier-Levigne and a committee recognizing the impact a standalone school might have.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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