Duke University announces the Duke Climate Commitment with inaugural gifts
Over $36 million in initial gifts will launch the Duke Climate Commitment, a new university-wide initiative focused on addressing climate change.
The Duke Climate Commitment will unite the university’s education, research, operations, and public service missions toward the pursuit of creating solutions to climate change, said Duke President Vincent E. Price. Among the university’s goals are to facilitate a clean energy transition, create more climate resilient communities, leverage strengths in data to address climate problems, infuse climate fluency into the student curriculum and do all of this work with a focus on environmental and climate justice.
“This is such an exciting — and unprecedented — moment for Duke.” Price said. “We are very grateful for the support of our generous alumni and friends in this effort, which will enable Duke to create sustainable and equitable solutions that will place society on the path to a resilient, flourishing, net-zero-carbon world. We know we can do it—we know that we will do it—because Duke is in it, together, for life.”
The first award to the Duke Climate Commitment — $5 million representing the earliest philanthropic support of the new initiative — came from The Duke Endowment, the private foundation based in Charlotte, N.C., that was established in 1924 by industrialist and philanthropist James B. Duke. This support helped launch several initial efforts, including helping to solidify a Duke Climate Commitment primary goal around climate fluency for all students.
“We were pleased to be the first supporter of the Duke Climate Commitment,” said Minor Shaw, chair of the board of trustees at The Duke Endowment. “Duke is approaching the climate crisis in a thoughtful, interdisciplinary way, assessing all dimensions of its mission — education, research, public service and community partnerships — and saying, ‘We’re directing all of these efforts toward sustainable and just climate solutions.’ ”
In addition to The Duke Endowment award, the Duke Climate Commitment will be supported by a $25 million gift from Ginny Nicholas ’64 and the late Pete Nicholas ’64, along with their children J.K. Nicholas ’89, M.B.A. ’96; Katherine Nicholas ’94; and Peter M. Nicholas Jr. ’92, M.B.A. ’98 and his wife, Christina Nicholas, who is a Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability advisory board member. The Nicholas family provided the naming gift for Duke’s school of the environment, which was established in 1991 when the former, long-standing School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Duke University Marine Lab merged. In 2005 Duke established what is now the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability through the generosity of Ginny and Pete Nicholas.
“The Nicholas family has been the creative and accelerating force behind establishing a focus on the environment at Duke,” said Toddi Steelman, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment. “They have a long history of supporting our environmental solutions-oriented institute that is seeking impact beyond the walls of Duke. Now they are helping Duke forge a new pathway for leadership in developing solutions for the most critical environmental challenge of our time — climate change.”
Five additional early gifts to the Duke Climate Commitment will be used to establish and expand a climate curriculum at Duke. This fall, Duke launched a university-wide course, “Let’s Talk about Climate Change,” to a maximum-capacity group of 150 undergraduate students. Led by Duke biologist and professor Emily Bernhardt and Norman Wirzba, a professor of theology at Duke Divinity School, the class is an early example of the university’s goal to ensure that every Duke student understands the interdisciplinary complexities of the climate crisis and prepare them for leadership in developing climate change solutions. In addition, hundreds of first-year students engaged in pre-orientation activities aimed at the environment, climate and sustainability.
Five donor families have made gifts that will support Duke’s goals to create climate fluency in the classroom and beyond:
- A $2.125 million gift by Duke Trustee Jeff Ubben ’83 and Laurie Ubben ’84 will help endow a professorship in environmental economics or policy in the Nicholas School of the Environment. Another portion of their gift will provide resources to strengthen Duke’s climate fluency efforts. Jeff, who chaired the Duke Trustee task force on Climate Change and Sustainability in 2021, is the founder of Inclusive Capital Partners, while Laurie is the co-founder of Bird School of Music in San Francisco and the owner of the newly opened Little Saint, a plant-based restaurant and music venue in Healdsburg, California.
- A $2.125 million gift by Mike Stone ’84 and Karen Stone will also help endow the professorship in environmental economics or policy in the Nicholas School of the Environment. Additional funds will help create and expand the climate curriculum Duke offers. Mike is the Chief Investment Officer of TPG’s Rise Funds, a private equity impact investment platform.
- A $750,000 gift by Duke Trustee Katy Hollister ’81 and Brad Miller ’81 will provide seed funding to create DESIGN Climate, a new program co-sponsored by the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Pratt School of Engineering that will deploy interdisciplinary teams of students and faculty to tackle climate issues using the principles of design. Geared toward vertically integrated professional, doctoral and senior undergraduate student teams, the DESIGN Climate program will feature course work as well as a real-world, client-facing project in which the teams will tackle a climate problem.
- A $700,000 gift by Cindy Marrs ’84 and John Marrs, both Duke parents, will bolster the Duke Financial Economics Strategic Initiatives Fund by supporting courses and co-curricular activities in climate finance. Cindy is the head of global wealth management and co-head of alternatives at Wellington Management in Boston.
- An anonymous $750,000 gift by a Pratt School of Engineering graduate from the class of 1994 will also support the DESIGN Climate program at Pratt, in collaboration with the Nicholas School.