Billion-dollar donation launches Stanford climate school

Stanford University announced Wednesday that the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability will open in the fall as the first new school at the university in 70 years, following a $1.1 billion donation from venture capitalist John Doerr and his wife, Ann.

The school will offer full degree programs in an interdisciplinary effort to include academic departments, institutes and initiatives and a sustainability accelerator in order to address the urgent societal challenges wrought by climate change.

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne introduced the new school’s dean, Arun Majumdar, who is already on the engineering faculty.

“We want to create a future for our children, who are both scared and angry,” said John Doerr. “Their view is that our generation created this problem and you better fix it. It will take the full force of Stanford to address this problem.”

The School of Sustainability will open Sept. 1 with 90 Stanford faculty coming from other departments with another 60 positions to be added later, the university said.. The initial push will be in four areas: energy systems, climate, sustainable development and environmental justice.

The first students will come over from the existing school of earth which will be folded into the new school, along with its faculty.

Undergraduates may declare majors in disciplines to include the oceans, civil and environmental engineering, climate science, and global and environmental policy. There will be an undergraduate bachelor of science degree along with master’s and Ph.D. degrees. The first degrees will be conferred in June 2023.

“This is a university-wide commitment to tackle this problem with a combination of deep scholarship and near-term action to deal with the climate crisis and sustainability,” said Tessier-Lavigne, adding that since the 1930s, some 39,000 companies have been launched by Stanford faculty, graduates and dropouts.

“There are at least six electric battery companies to come out of Stanford,” he said, “and we need more.”

The new school will eventually be spread between four buildings adjacent to the engineering quad, on the west side. Two are already there, and two more will be built, with ground breaking expected in 2025.

Majumdar, 59, has been a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford for seven years. But he has been interested in sustainability since he was a child growing up in India in the 1960s.

“There was a massive food shortage,” he said. “I still remember the rations.” The hunger was was solved by scientific innovation that gave India the tools to grow food. Called “the green revolution” its chief architect, Norman Borlaug, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. “That’s the kind of innovation we need,” Majumdar said.

Tessier-Lavigne said there is no sustainability program at this scale at any university in the country.

“We designed a school for the future that provides knowledge generation and impact to tackle the world’s greatest problems,” he said.

In addition to the $1.1 billion supplied by the Doerrs, other donors, including Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, have boosted the seed money to $1.69 billion.

It was announced in a letter sent to Stanford alumni and friends on Wednesday.

The Doerrs are friends of the university, not alumni. “I applied” said Doerr, who ended up at Rice University in Texas. But he is not bitter. Being turned down as a freshman applicant “made me love Stanford all the more,” he said.

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: swhiting@sfchronicle.com

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