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  • Ari Betof

Stanford’s First New School in 70 Years Will Focus on Climate Change

Together with funds from other donors, Stanford University will use its largest donation ever, a $1.1bn gift from John and Ann Doerr, to establish the institution’s first new school in 70 years. To be known as the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, it will focus on developing deep knowledge of our pressing climate challenges and impactful solutions for addressing them.

Gift Establishes Doerrs as Top Funders of Climate Change in Academia

The Doerrs’ gift places them alongside several other ultrawealthy individuals making hefty contributions to climate change research, scholarship, and other initiatives. They include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has committed half a billion dollars to shut down coal-fired power plants.

An engineer turned venture capitalist with an estimated fortune of $11.3bn accumulated through investments in technology companies such as Slack, Google, and Amazon, John Doerr is the author of two books: Measure What Matters, in which he builds the case for ambitious goal setting and meticulous execution, and Speed & Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now.

Mr. Doerr believes “climate and sustainability is going to be the new computer science. This is what the young people want to work on with their lives, for all the right reasons.” He told The New York Times that his interest in climate change was ignited watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth with his daughter, who subsequently challenged him to address the problem “his generation” had created. Although Gore joined Kleiner Perkins, Doerr’s venture capital firm, a year later, helping to establish it as a frontrunner in Silicon Valley’s cleantech movement, many of its cleantech firms failed in the financial crisis of 2008, when fracking substantially lowered natural gas prices.

Signatories to The Giving Pledge, the Doerrs have generously supported Stanford in the past. Climate and sustainability are among the couple’s top philanthropic objectives. Ann Doerr has served on Stanford Medicine’s Cancer Council and Under One Umbrella Steering Committee and currently serves as the chair of the board for Khan Academy. She is also an Environmental Defense Fund Advisory Board member and a former trustee of Rice University.

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A Distinctive Three-Part Structure

Stanford’s website describes how its new school will be structured around three distinctive parts:

1. Academic Departments

Academic departments staffed with roughly 90 existing Stanford faculty will drive excellence in eight fields related to planetary crisis. These fields include human health and the environment, human society and behavior, food and water security, the natural environment, sustainable cities, energy technology, Earth and planetary sciences, and climate change. The current faculty of Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) will be among those transitioning to the new school. And an additional 60 faculty members will be recruited within a decade, with initial hires focusing on environmental justice, sustainable development, climate science, and energy.

2. Interdisciplinary Institutes

Interdisciplinary institutes, such as the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy, will become part of the new school. Together with a new Institute for Sustainable Societies, they will facilitate the “cross-pollination” of different fields of scholarship across the university to ensure depth and breadth of knowledge acquisition. The Institute for Sustainable Societies has been conceptualized to focus on the political challenges in moving toward sustainable living and institutional and economic infrastructure issues. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD, Stanford’s president, confirms, “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.”

3. An Accelerator for Technology and Policy Solutions

The school’s Sustainability Accelerator will support the advancement of high-potential technologies with grant funding, laboratory space, enabling tools, and domain experts to help refine and scale potential climate solutions. Interdisciplinary policy design and comprehensive stakeholder engagement will be emphasized in solution development, focusing on measurable community impact. Solutions will be geared to address the needs of industry, government, and other stakeholders directly.

Additionally, the Doerr School of Sustainability will be providing assistance and input to students from other schools on campus, including the university’s professional schools, regardless of their area of study. It is hoped that the insights thus generated will equip a broad spectrum of professionals to respond appropriately to sustainability issues in the “real world.”

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Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Chair Appointed as Dean

Professor Arun Majumdar, PhD, has been appointed as the inaugural dean of the school. A professor of mechanical engineering, senior fellow, and former co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, Dr. Majumdar has advised the Obama and Biden administrations on energy issues as the chair of the Advisory Board to the U.S. Secretary of Energy. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and serves as a co-chair of its George Shultz Energy and Climate Task Force. Moreover, he was the founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

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