John Doerr Gives Stanford $1.1 Billion for Climate School

The billionaire venture capitalist said the study of climate change and sustainability would be the “new computer science.”

John Doerr, one of the most successful venture capitalists in the history of Silicon Valley, is giving $1.1 billion to Stanford University to fund a school focused on climate change and sustainability.

The gift, which Mr. Doerr is making with his wife Ann, is the largest ever to a university for the establishment of a new school, and is the second largest gift to an academic institution, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Only Michael R. Bloomberg’s 2018 donation of $1.8 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, ranks higher.

The gift establishes the Doerrs as leading funders of climate change research and scholarship, and will place Stanford at the center of public and private efforts to wean the world off fossil fuels.

“Climate and sustainability is going to be the new computer science,” Mr. Doerr, who made his estimated $11.3 billion fortune investing in technology companies such as Slack, Google and Amazon, said in an interview. “This is what the young people want to work on with their lives, for all the right reasons.”

The school, to be known as the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, will be a home to traditional academic departments related to topics such as planetary science, energy technology and food-and-water security. It will also feature several interdisciplinary institutes and a center focused on developing practical policy and technology solutions to the climate crisis.

“The school will absolutely focus on policy issues and on asking what would it take to move the world toward more sustainable practices and better behaviors,” Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the Stanford president, said in an interview.

Mr. Doerr joins a growing list of ultrawealthy men donating huge sums of money to the fight against global warming. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said in 2020 said he was committing $10 billion of his own money to a new initiative he called the Bezos Earth Fund, and last year detailed how some of the money would be spent.

Mr. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, said in 2019 he would spend $500 million to help close coal-fired power plants. And Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, has put billions of dollars to work on climate related issues through various efforts, including Breakthrough Energy and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Yet some question whether these philanthropic investments can make a difference when it comes to a planetary crisis.

“I don’t see how giving a billion dollars to a rich university is going to move the needle on this issue in a near-term time frame,” said David Callahan, author of “The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.” “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.”

Arun Majumdar, who was named as the school’s inaugural dean and has advised the Obama and Biden administrations on energy issues, said the school would provide context and analysis around climate change issues, but would stop short of advocacy. “We will not go into the political arena,” he said. “That’s a very slippery slope for us.”

Mr. Majumdar, who currently holds a chair at Stanford named for Jay Precourt, a businessman who made his name in the oil business, also said that the new school would work with and accept donations from fossil fuel companies.

“Not all oil and gas industries are on board, but there are some who are who are under pressure to diversify, otherwise they will not survive,” Mr. Majumdar said. “Those that want to diversify and be part of the solutions, and they want to engage with us, we are open to that.”

Mr. Doerr said he was first inspired to address climate change in 2006, after he watched Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” with his family. He said that, at dinner after the film, his daughter told him, “Your generation created this problem. You better fix it.” The next year, Mr. Gore joined Kleiner Perkins, Mr. Doerr’s venture capital firm.

In the years that followed, Kleiner Perkins made several major investments in clean energy companies and Mr. Doerr delivered a TED Talk titled “Salvation (and Profit) in Greentech.” But during the financial crisis of 2008, when the cost of natural gas plummeted due to fracking, many of those clean energy companies failed.

Last year Mr. Doerr published a book called “Speed & Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now.” In it, he calls for rapid action to reduce emissions and increase the use of renewable energy. Among his priorities are electrifying transportation, adding massive amounts of clean power to the grid and reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production.

“We’ve got to be clear about the problem,” he said. “I believe this is a problem of scale that needs far greater ambition, urgency and excellence deployed against it.”

Mr. Doerr and his wife are signatories to the Giving Pledge, the effort founded by Mr. Gates, his ex-wife Melinda French Gates, and Warren Buffett to persuade ultrawealthy individuals to give away the majority of their fortunes during their lifetimes or in their wills. “Climate and sustainability is the most important of our causes,” Mr. Doerr said of his family’s philanthropic plans.

Other major universities, including Columbia, are establishing interdisciplinary schools focused on climate change as well. Yet the Doerr School for Sustainability, Stanford’s first new school in 70 years, will be among the largest and best funded. It will launch with 90 faculty members and add 60 more over the next 10 years. The university said it had raised an additional $590 million alongside the gift from the Doerrs, and that some of the funds would be used to construct two new buildings.

Mr. Doerr said he hoped that the gift would inspire other wealthy individuals to spend their fortunes combating climate change. “This is going to take more than one institution,” Mr. Doerr said. “Just like we have multiple medical schools, we need multiple sustainability schools to get the job done.”

You may also like...